Starting a Research Program with Undergraduates

One of my tasks this summer was to get a research program up and running with undergraduate students. Let me give you some background before I begin on my plan of action…

My position her at SU is as a Teaching Postdoc, meaning that according to my contract, my responsibilities end at the classroom. Fortunately, I have been given opportunities to start doing research here – which I NEED to do because I’ll be applying for tenure-track positions this fall. Let me count the ways I have been assisted in this venture: First, I have an AMAZING department that is supporting research projects I conduct with student research assistants. The cost of antibodies is covered and my colleagues allow me to use chemicals and solutions they have with out asking for anything in return. Second, I was awarded a mini-grant from SU, which is also covering the cost of supplies I need. Finally,  my colleague Dr. Keen-Rhinehart has generously offered some of the brain tissue she still has from other projects and, more importantly, introduced me to her collaborator at Bucknell University, Dr. Judy Grisel, who has opened her lab to me and we have already started a project using her mice.

I don’t know what I did right in this life, but I have been so fortunate to have such generous colleagues and a supportive department to help get my research program up and running…especially when it’s outside of my duties and they could all have told me “no can do”.

Like I mentioned above, thanks to my collaborators, I now have plenty of brains and plenty of work to do. Essentially, my projects involve examining the microglia in these brains to see if there is any correlation with some of the behavior outcomes of those rodents. After we collect some data, we plan to get some follow-up studies underway. Helping me with these projects are three undergraduate students: Jordan, Lauren and Liz. They are all rising seniors and are taking advantage of the summer to get a start on their capstone projects (SU requires biology and neuroscience majors to complete a capstone research project). Jordan and Lauren are teamed up taking on the “ethanol project” and Liz is working on the tissue from Dr. K-R.

So I have the support I need to run a research program, I have the brains (literally, I have rat and mouse brains to use), and I have the students…but what else do I need? Lab management skills...which no one trains you on as a student of science. Elizabeth Sandquist states the situation perfectly in a really nice article…”You chose the research profession because you were fascinated with the world around you …You have found that being the head of the lab is more than just making big discoveries; it is about managing a small business. Lab-management skills, while used every day by scientists, are not directly taught to young scientists. Rather, they are learned secondhand.” And if you have been in labs where no one was really managing, then you really have no idea what you have to do (points at self).

This seems a bit overwhelming…as a professor, not only do you need to take care of classroom responsibilities and be a researcher, you need to manage a small group of undergraduates. From experience, managing can be a full-time job by itself. Reading through some short articles on the topic offered a few good tips that I have absolutely been using. These included creating subgoals with my students and determining what motivates them (they are a competitive bunch, so having a totally baller poster was all they needed); giving pep-talks to remind them that it won’t be easy but they can do it; and setting a schedule on which they knew that I would assess their performance. The readings reminded me a lot of what I did in leadership positions for non-profits, so I started to think about my lab as an executive board – not so much a bunch of students I had to boss around, but colleagues who would come to me for guidance and support. I liked thinking about my lab this way because it’s very much in-line with the type of culture I want in my lab – students feel like they are valued and working toward a common goal and are respected by each other and me.

With my brain full of ideas and plans, it was time to take action. I decided to start the summer off by motivating the troops and setting some goals: There are two research symposiums for the students to present at in July, so we definitely want to have a bunch of data by then. With the dates for the symposiums in mind, we worked backwards to figure out what needed to be done and by when (schedule of assessment). This was really helpful for everyone as it showed us when we had to complete things by and to understand the sequence of steps to collect data. I think this has contributed greatly to the exceptional effort and after-hours work my students have been putting in. So they are working hard which I’m happy to see!

Weekly lab meetings/ journal clubs (the schedule) are also a part of my research program. I feel that these meetings benefit the students in three major ways: 1) they are evaluated on a regular basis and can see marked improvement; 2) and 3) pertain specifically to the journal club portion and allow for familiarization with current research in the field and practice improving their presentation skills. Enhancing communication skills is a big part of my teaching philosophy – as far as I’m concerned, they can be the smartest kids in the class, but if they can’t talk about the science or give an engaging presentation…it doesn’t matter. I tell my students to prepare a powerpoint presentation that doesn’t contain any full sentences. I actually suggest they try to avoid words completely and work with images. This is challenging for them at first, but the presentations are SO MUCH BETTER!! Gone are the days of students reading off of the slides! So far, journal club presentation have been the main show each week, but starting this week they will actually have their own data to present!!

Not everything has been super smooth this summer, despite the planning. While we have set goals and they are working hard, often times not all tasks have been completed by the original deadline due to legit problems or a case of senioritis. While this can be agitating, I try to never show any frustration. My approach is to give a stern reminder of the goals and timeline, assure them that I do know that they are working hard, and to encourage them to keep up the good work. I don’t want my students to be afraid to come to me if they are having trouble or really need my help, which is why I don’t get upset. I really do believe that I have a good working relationship with my researchers and that they do give me a really good effort (even with the occasional reminder!) with this philosophy and course of action.

I’m super proud of my students this summer and I’m happy to report that their hard work is paying off! I’ll be reporting back pretty soon on their prep and performance at the two upcoming research symposiums on the 27th and 28th!!

So, fellow investigators, what have you found that keeps the lab functioning? Any outstanding/unusual problems you have faced getting projects going? Whatcha think?


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