Tips ‘n Tricks for Undergraduate Research – Part II

in Issues, Spring 2010, Tips n' Tricks
April 27th, 2009

How do you capitalize on your research experience?

Using your time effectively in the lab may be as challenging getting in.

After weeks of searching, you have finally secured a prized position as a research assistant. You can take a day or two to rest on your laurels; however, you still have a lot work ahead of you. It is important that you become a valuable asset to the lab and make a meaningful contribution to science. With the constraints of a crazy undergraduate schedule, it may seem like a difficult task, if not impossible. It is hard to predict your unique situation; however, there are a few things you can do to ensure a smooth transition into your new research position.

Getting Your Hands Wet

One of the first things you should do when you arrive at your lab is to introduce yourself to your new colleagues. Try and get to know everyone on both a personal and professional level. Chances are you will be assigned to assist one of them on a project. Even if you are assigned a project of your own, you will need help from your new colleagues. Your lab mates will likely be your biggest assets in your research endeavors, so don’t be shy and do your very best to get to know everyone. In addition to helping you on your day-to-day experiments, your colleagues can direct you to interesting literature, good textbooks, and give you experienced insight into your new field of research.


After getting to know your new colleagues, you should begin to learn about the different projects that your lab is working on. Try and get involved in as many different experimental procedures as possible. Keep your mind open to learning new things and find your niche in the lab.

Read as much primary literature as you can get your hands on.
Reading is just as important as gaining experience with different procedures. Read as much primary literature as you can get your hands on. Ask your professor for articles as a start. Your lab should have a collection of textbooks and journals that you can browse at your leisure. Do not be discouraged if you do not understand the primary articles at first. It will take time and experience to be able to make sense of the dense material. It is important to keep at it and not give up. If there is something you do not understand, ask a colleague or find a secondary source that explains the concepts. Remember, many of the graduate students working in your lab were likely in your situation just a few years ago.

Defining Your Project

Most of the time, professors will assign you to a project to begin with. Even the project doesn’t line up with your own interests, do not engage in it passively. Be proactive about your research experience – ask about other projects and try to get on a project that interests you. You can also suggest changes in your current research plan to your mentor. Always be creative and strive to make a meaningful contribution to your lab that you can call your own.

If you have not been assigned your own project right off the bat, you will have a lot more freedom in developing your own project eventually. This will likely be the case if you are assisting a graduate student or post-doc on their project. While you will undoubtedly learn many new skills under direction of your colleagues, it is important that you ultimately work on a project of your own.
Strive to make a meaningful contribution to your lab that you can call your own.
When developing a research project, you should ask yourselves a few key questions. First, does your project have a novel component to it? Review the current literature thoroughly with your faculty advisor. After all, it is of little value to undertake work that has already been completed by another researcher. Second, and perhaps most important of all, why does your project matter? You have to clearly define what research your work builds on and how it will impact your particular field and society at large. Third, is your project feasible in the amount of time you have allocated for research? If you plan on spending only a semester or two in a particular lab, do not plan an overly ambitious project. Finally, you need to propose a hypothesis. Almost all science starts with an observation and a hypothesis. This will help guide your work and also keep you thinking about where your project is headed. A hypothesis, whether correct or incorrect, will form the roots from which your research project will grow.

Show Me the Money!

Once you have defined a project of your own, take advantage of all your resources! Your experienced colleagues and advisors can help you refine your project to make it more feasible and relevant. After you have a clear picture of your project in mind, you can start applying for funding. A great place to start is the BU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Office (UROP). You can visit the UROP website at and download forms needed to apply for a student stipend and funds to cover research expenses.

Take your time while filling out the UROP application. Make sure you spell out the aims and significance of your project very clearly. Keep your application easy to read and avoid jargon that people outside of your field may be unfamiliar with. If you must use any of your field’s lingo, be sure to clearly define it in the application. Lastly, ask your faculty advisor to read through your application before submitting it. Your advisor will have copious experience writing grant proposals, and will know how to help you write the most effective UROP application.

Several factors will determine whether or not you receive UROP funding. UROP has limited funds, and they tend to go to students who have well-thought-out projects. You are also more likely to receive funds if you have significant research experience and/or are an upperclassman. However, do not let your class standing discourage you from applying, especially if you have a strong project and significant research experience. Even if you are not awarded funding, it is important to still stay positive. Many times, UROP gets many more applications than it can fund. Hence, you should not take a “rejection” from UROP to mean that your project is unworthy. Just keep trying and do not give up, but more importantly, continue working on your project diligently.
Start applying for funding once you have a clear picture of your project.
UROP is not the only organization that supports undergraduate research. Ask your faculty advisor if he or she knows any grants you can apply for. Perhaps the lab can even provide you with funding. Often times, you will have to work as a volunteer for a semester before receiving a stipend. Some labs may not even have money allocated for an undergraduate research assistant, so don’t be disappointed if you can’t get paid through them. You can also look online at websites like the Community of Science ( and at professional organizations such as Sigma Xi and IEEE for external funding opportunities. In any case, realize that funding is merely a secondary concern. Your primary goal should be to embrace your research experience and learn as much as you can from it.

Final Thoughts

As an undergraduate, you most likely will not have significant expertise in the field you will be working in. Your advisors and colleagues know this and will be willing to support your endeavors. Because of this, you should never be afraid to ask for help on your project. You can never ask too many questions. Curiosity is the force that drives science, and without it, you will quickly find yourself lost. Almost of equal importance is to keep the line of communication open between yourself and your lab director. Chances are, your lab director will be extremely busy and not have the time to schedule meetings with you. It falls on your shoulders to keep your advisor in the loop by having at the very least, a short weekly meeting.
Curiosity is the force that drives science, and without it, you will quickly find yourself lost.
Lastly, remember to avoid too much busy work. Many times you may find yourself running experiments for others, cleaning the lab, or doing scores of other mundane tasks. While it is important to do your fair share of housekeeping around the lab, remember that your primary objective is to learn. If you find yourself being recruited to do too many such tasks to the point that it is affecting your own work, talk to your faculty advisor. Remember to be very respectful and to not point fingers at or complain about your colleagues. That is unprofessional behavior and will not be looked upon favorably.

Undergraduate research presents you with exciting opportunities to gain valuable experience at the cutting edge of science. Boston University is one of the leading research institutions in the United States, and as students of BU, we should take advantage of all that it has to offer. Like anything worth pursuing, research is by no means a cakewalk. It takes diligence and perseverance, but can yield tremendous rewards if undertaken with foresight and enthusiasm.

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