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Undergrad Research Projects 101

Research projects are exciting opportunities for getting hands-on experience in your field of interest, building organization and communication skills, and adding credibility to your resume post-graduation. But where do you start? 

We asked ESM Counselor Brad Harris, Senior Academic Mentor Bijal Patel, and current student Miranda Kramer to share their wisdom on seeking out and taking part in undergrad research projects! 

Can you tell us a little bit about your research experience?

Bijal: I worked in a protein sciences group at Novartis, which is a pharmaceutical company like Pfizer. Looking to build my research skills, I developed a project on the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology under the guidance of Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) mentors. As the first intern at the site to work on CRISPR, I spent weeks reviewing published studies and forming novel hypotheses to test. I designed and executed my experiments by collecting and analyzing data from protein science methods such as flow cytometry, genomics, in-vivo animal work, microbiology, microscopy, next gen sequencing, protein purification, qPCR, western blotting, and cloning. This project allowed me to see the bench to bedside aspect of research and the potential of the CRISPR-Cas9 system to efficiently target and eliminate disease-causing genes.


Brad: As a junior and senior undergrad at Duke, I pursued an independent study researching the history of plastics commercialization in the twentieth century. This culminated in a senior thesis. Most of my research was based on a mix of primary and secondary historical sources.  For secondary sources, I read dozens of manuscripts on the history of the plastics industry, and hundreds of media stories archived on microfiche and other catalogs. For primary sources, I applied for and received research grants from the National Science Foundation to travel to corporate archives for DuPont, Dow, and ExxonMobile in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Michigan, and I conducted about a dozen industry interviews.


Miranda: I am currently working on research in two different labs within the UC Davis Psychology Department: I work in the Language Learning Lab and the Goodman Lab (Developmental Research Center). Research in the language lab regards infants’ language acquisition; I am currently working with a team preparing to present findings at the Undergraduate Research Conference. My work at the Developmental Research Center is primarily scribing and organizing data for online studies currently being conducted with children and their families.



Research can be competitive. How did you get your foot in the door? 


Bijal: I joined the Biology Scholars Program at UC Berkeley, which was a mentorship and academic support group that connected me to the opportunity in a newsletter. Seeking out these groups and connecting with professors is a great way to find opportunities. It’s definitely good to network in scientific communities and clubs. Ask around!


Brad: I worked closely with a professor in the history of science at Duke in an upper-level seminar, which provided the research foundation and rapport I would need to request him as my thesis advisor.


Miranda: I put my name out there multiple times. I strived to make sure that when a position opened up, my name was already on the possible candidates list. I also applied to positions that met my area of future study, so I had already taken classes that prepared me for my area of interest, which I emphasized on my application and during my interview. Lastly, labs often hire at the beginning of every quarter/semester, so applying at the right time (or re-applying!) can also increase your chances of being selected.



Do you have any go-to resources that you would recommend college students use to find research opportunities?


Bijal: Office hours with professors are great; also, ask STEM professors about any open opportunities and learn about their own research to show your interest. I knew about the CRISPR technology because my general Biology teacher discovered it and won a Nobel Prize for it (Jennifer Doudna, UC Berkeley, go women in science!) so this allowed me to show what I knew and my interest when interviewing. Being interested is all you need - they know you don't know things yet, especially if it's your first wet lab. I have been offered an academic research position just by chatting with a professor at a networking event. Clubs are great to network and allow things to fall in your lap like they did for me. 


Brad:  I think networking with certain professors or research heads is the most effective way to initiate research in college.


Miranda: Always look up what research your professors and TAs are conducting; they usually love to discuss their research area in office hours, and this is a great way to put your name out there. Utilize campus resources! My campus has an Undergraduate Research Center that offers great resources that directed me to numerous research labs and provided resources to assist me in the application process.


If you could give one piece of advice to students looking for or engaging in a research project, what would it be?


Bijal: Patience and detail are so important. Even though science is amazing and research sounds glamorous, it involves lots of guesswork and repetition to draw conclusions. Even then, you might fail! I did many times… and my research was "sparkly" and a "hot topic" in the scientific community.


Brad: Pursue research that goes above and beyond your college curriculum if you find yourself thinking about the relevant research questions anyway in your spare time… i.e., if you are naturally insatiably curious about a certain topic or question and think about it on your own anyway, then pursuing an institutionally supported research project on that topic/question makes sense.


Miranda: Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and keep applying. My first time applying for research positions I was unsuccessful, but I persisted and applied every quarter. Ultimately, my persistence paid off and I was able to interview for positions in multiple labs. If you find a lab that may suit your interests, reach out to the PI and put your name out there. Sometimes labs may not be hiring at the moment, but if you are a strong candidate they may reach out in the future.