Undergraduate Researchers

Phong Lee | phong.lee@yale.edu September 1, 2010

Editor’s Note: This installment is part one of a four part series covering the experiences of scientific researchers at Yale. Next issue, check back for an exploration of the life of laboratory technicians

Scientific exploration is seldom as picturesque as popular culture portrays it. Behind each achievement rests an untold story of late nights, countless failures, and seemingly endless drudgery. However, to say that research is only a negative experience is false. For students at Yale, research is always somewhere in between—simultaneously a struggle and a satisfying, even gratifying, experience.

As undergraduate education at Yale continues to emphasize independent scientific inquiry, more science majors than ever are entering the laboratory to pursue independent research. Spurred by opportunities such as research-for-credit or summer science fellowships, undergraduates are at the vanguard of scientific progress, whether on Kline Biology Tower’s countless floors or in Sterling Hall of Medicine’s vast expanses of bench space.

Cora Mukerji, an upperclassman majoring in the neuroscience track of psychology, summarized in a recent interview the general opinion of undergraduates toward research endeavors: “Research allows for the application of methodologies and theories studied in class. The experience offers new ways to think.”

Given the variety of potential research mentors, the process of finding a laboratory can be both chaotic and stressful. While there are no set rules regarding finding a laboratory, each year most undergraduates think it best to e-mail professors whose research statements appear most interesting. As another student noted, “It is important to be persistent when looking for a laboratory and to never settle since there are so many laboratories available.” Undergraduates are not, however, given the luxury that is available to graduate students where they are able to rotate with several different labs. Many undergrads find it stressful to choose a lab where they would like to work for several years based on a short interview with the principle investigator.

Amidst the possibilities of engaging in fulfilling and challenging research are the occasional horror stories. There is the one that tells of undergraduates spending a significant amount of time working on mundane or unimportant projects. One undergraduate, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “I spent three afternoons a week refilling pipette tips and making buffers. It was excruciatingly frustrating. After a few months, I decided to leave.” Conversely, some undergraduates are assigned to projects with little chance of success. Another anonymous undergraduate stated, “I was given a project that the professor had been trying to work on for several years but no one in the lab was willing to work on it, fearful that they would never publish.” These types of narratives about research at Yale do exist, but they seem to represent a minority of the experiences of student researchers. For example, Julia Chang who performed immunobiology research at the medical school, said “I worked on multiple projects in the laboratory and had many opportunities to study side-by-side with experienced scientists. There were always opportunities to become heavily involved in one or more projects.”

Indeed, many labs at Yale present a welcoming pedagogical front to eager undergraduates. Professors often offer to undergraduates mentors such as post-doctoral fellows or graduate students. Under their guidance, students carry out their projects and develop research skills. Elizabeth Moran noted “It is important to have a patient mentor who answers even the most obvious or trivial questions. Without guidance in research, the experience can be overwhelming.”

As many undergraduates note, in order to balance the demands of a rigorous scientific exploration with academics, extracurricular activities, and social commitments, effective time management becomes critical. Procrastination needs to be removed as much as possible from the daily routine and many student researchers believe that laboratory work has taught them to manage their time better. “I constantly remind myself that research is a part of my life, not my whole life,” remarked Czestochowa Francois, a junior in Trumbull. “Although I jokingly say publish or perish, it is far from the attitude that I take. I strive for a balance.”

Although the time commitments that many undergraduates make are significant, all of the students interviewed highly recommended the experience. “Research teaches invaluable skills in problem solving and critical thinking,” noted Rachel Corbin. “Unlike laboratory courses, where everyone follows the same procedure and gets the same expected results, in research no one knows the answer.”

As Yale continues to invest within the sciences, more undergraduate students are gravitating towards research laboratories. Indeed, behind each undergraduate researcher is an untold story, one filled with compromises, lost sleep, and frustration. However, the rewards are immense and for that, students continue to find ways to balance research with their undergraduate careers. As Yale invests more within the science departments, students, too, are investing more time and energy in their laboratories.