What does an undergraduate biology lab inquiry look like?
May 16, 2011 10:08 PM   Subscribe

What does an undergraduate biology lab inquiry look like? Help me work for free.

I'm a post-bac taking courses with an eye to start an MS Botany/Mycology program in Fall 2012. My undergrad degree in English. I've spent the past year acing intro bio. I also have a pretty vague focus at this point and need to start narrowing that down. I've been working full-time as an administrative assistant, but have quit my job effective early June to focus on school. I have some semi-relevant experience, but I'm not sure what they'd care about.

I've done:
undergrad bio stockroom - making solutions, pouring plates (ten years ago)
Permaculture certificate (from the uni I'm attending, FWIW)
volunteered with an animal tracking survey last winter (aka, I can tramp around in the woods and write things down)
worked on an organic farm / nursery (possibly suiting me for the research greenhouse?)

Is it okay to just email professors with something like the above and ask if they have time to discuss opportunities with me? Is it way too late to find a summer lab experience, even as free labor (my school has three weeks left in the spring quarter)? Should I work for any lab that will have me, even if they're animal-focused? Will I have enough experience to get into a grad program? I know I also need to start contacting departments like, now, but that's less urgent, right?

I've read these questions, which helped some:
posted by momus_window to Education (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Start networking -- ask your biology professors and classmates if they know of any professors or research teams who need lab assistance.

Definitely check with the relevant departments ASAP, and do it in person -- many departments only post want ads on a physical job board at the department office, not online, and the department secretary isn't necessarily going to be up-to-date on what's posted.

In general, face-to-face is better. Don't just email professors, find out when their office hours are, and schlep your resume around in person. It's much harder to blow off a person than it is to delete an email.

FYI, my institute doesn't allow people to work for free, so you should check on your target employers' rules before you offer such a thing, because you might inadvertently create a problem for someone and they might always remember YOU as the source of the problem instead of the rule.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:24 PM on May 16, 2011

In the past, I worked with undergrads and saw how they approached my advisor, and a few years later, I also hired a few undergrads when I worked at a small college. It is very normal to have students (and even prospective students) email and ask if you are hiring, etc.

Here is the approach that I would take to this:

• Check out the “about us” page for the various faculty members at your college or university. If you want to work in botany, then start with faculty with this particular area of research. Does any of the research sound really interesting to you? Look up a paper or two by that faculty member and read it.

• Do write a brief email stating your interest in attending grad school and obtaining research experience. I would include information such as your undergrad experience (it sounds like you are older student – having previous work experience would be an advantage IMO), plus your volunteer experience (some faculty will request that someone recommend you, so it will be useful to say that you have done some field work and that a person can speak to what did).

• In your email, also state that you are interested in working in his or her lab in particular because you are interested in botany/mycology and also, you are intrigued by his or her research (do mention what you find interesting from your research in 1 or 2 sentences). Ask if you can meet with the person at a time of his or her convenience to discuss it further.

• You may want to approach an project coordinators/staff in the biology office and ask if they know if anyone is hiring this summer; they will tend to know if someone was recently awarded a grant, is looking to hire someone, etc. (I have had students sent to me before I even posted that I was going to hire).

• Make sure that you interview and ask for what you want, too. Some faculty may have projects that will allow you to present the research at a conference or even get your name on a publication. Ask what past students have done in his or her lab (Do they present the research? Did they have a chance to publish?) If you are later offered a chance to get into a few labs, I would pick the one that offers a chance to work on research that is likely to get published.

I’m going to nth something that Jacqueline said – I did once hire a student at the start of the semester because she showed up at my door at the start of the semester and I was way too busy to post an ad or look for students. So for the few students that knocked on my door and asked, “Are you going to hire a student to work in the ___ lab?” were part of the small pool that I selected from. I would have also considered someone that asked by email, but no one did that.
posted by Wolfster at 10:37 PM on May 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

In my graduate lab, we placed ads for undergrads when we had big needs (e.g., 10 bottle washers for the semester or 5 summer field workers) but many of our best folks were ones who had just sent in an email saying they were interested and listing relevant experience, which it seems like you have. When people volunteered rather than getting paid, we tried to make sure that they got to do more interesting than bottle washing, and in general with all student workers we tried to make sure that they understood what they were doing and how it fit into the work in the lab.

I agree that you should definitely start by contacting labs that do work you're interested in. But, if the undergrad placement office tells you about an animal lab that needs someone, you will not be harming your grad school chances by working on research that is not what you're most interested in. The experience itself counts more than the subject matter.

If your school has a greenhouse facility, you should also check there to see if they are hiring. Those are good jobs and would give you an opportunity to interact with many different researchers.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:55 AM on May 17, 2011

All students in my major were required to take at least one year of research lab, and it was up to us to be proactive and contact lab PIs (Primary Investigators) about lab openings. We all basically went on the university's science website and found links to lab websites and wrote e-mails. Along with listing relevant experience (except for a few basic biology & chemistry labs, almost none of us had "real" lab experience), I found it also helped to list why you want to work in that lab. For instance, I initially worked in a bioinformatics labs and my inquiry mentioned that not only do I have programming experience, I also enjoy working with computers & programming. Once I found a lab I really wanted to work in, I made it a point to keep an open line of dialog with that PI so my name would be one of the few undergrad's he actually knew- it worked and was a great lab experience.
posted by jmd82 at 7:05 AM on May 17, 2011

I don't think it is too late to get a summer position. Does your school have a job board where these things are posted? There are still 5-6 lab openings for the summer posted on my school's board (applications are being accepted until 5/31) and our classes ended two weeks ago.
posted by magnetsphere at 7:58 AM on May 17, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for the good news and advice, everybody. It sounds like I'm not totally screwed, was mostly on the right track, and may even get paid! Friends who studied bio at other institutions said that they generally volunteered for a couple months in labs before they got hired on.

I have been reading up on research on the uni website and I'll shake down my TA for info tonight. Because I'm taking night classes and still in intro, I have one very busy professor who's headed into maternity leave, and my 200 classmates are mostly pre-professionals. I talked to the adjunct who taught a segment on plants last quarter, and she was encouraging that being an older student could work in my favor in terms of having work and volunteer experience. Even if I find a lab before then, I plan go to office hours once my office job ends / summer term starts and work on getting to know more professors in the department.

If your school has a greenhouse facility, you should also check there to see if they are hiring. Those are good jobs and would give you an opportunity to interact with many different researchers.

Yes! I liked working in a greenhouse, and my campus has a big, fancy one.
posted by momus_window at 8:46 AM on May 17, 2011

Response by poster: I talked to my TA, who suggested a few grad student projects I might be interested in. I started volunteering with one lab about a week ago and will hopefully talk to a student in another lab this week. I was really happy with the lab's practice of having me float between a few different projects and possibly start my own mini project in a few months - everyone has been great about reminding me to ask questions and make sure I'm learning and getting benefit from the experience.

FWIW, my (avaricious?) school dislikes students volunteering in labs and prefers to have them register for research credit. Getting paid seems out of the question so far.
posted by momus_window at 9:22 PM on June 20, 2011

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