Click on the categories below to find all of the tools you need to begin your independent research project.
Find a Faculty Mentor
Strategy for finding a mentor for research:
Identify particular labs/mentors whose work seems interesting to you and approach them by email. See the list here.
To generate a list of faculty to contact, you should focus on areas of biology and/or medicine that seem interesting to you – from course work or other exposure. You can scan the Bio 200/500 approved mentors list for a brief overview of research areas of many faculty who have been approved and are willing to be mentors.
Try to find several faculty members (3-7) whose work seems interesting to you. Send an email to each faculty member asking for an appointment. In this email, say WHY YOU PICKED THEIR NAMES/AREA OF RESEARCH and what specifically interests you about this area [i.e., liked this topic in intro course, have always had an interest in topic due to family history or personal experience, etc.]. Briefly explain your goals for the research experience and possible future plans for career, where you are in school, and what relevant courses you have taken. If you have done well in your coursework, don’t hesitate to say so. Briefly describe any prior research experience and any techniques that you are familiar or comfortable performing (as PCR, Western blotting, etc.). Do not worry if you have had no experience. No one is born knowing how to do research. This is an opportunity for you to learn techniques, experimental design and other elements of doing research. Your note should be short but should highlight your interests and any of your qualifications.
If you need a paying job, especially if you are a first or second year student, say so. If you are eligible for work-study mention that. Include a phrase like: “While I will be happy to start by performing routine chores, my hope is that I will also be able to work my way into participation in research.”
Wait a week or so for replies. If none are forthcoming, try once more with these same faculty, indicating that you are resending a previous inquiry. If after two tries you do not get a positive response, determine if there are some additional people whose work interests you and contact them.
You may also find it useful to visit the DBBS faculty website which also provides summaries of the research interests of the many (>350) researchers [at Hilltop and the Medical school] that are part of the ‘Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.’ This site is well maintained and is organized alphabetically and by Division Programs.
Don’t hesitate to ask someone whose research interests you – whether they are on the approved mentors list or not. The worst that can happen is they say no. Do note however, that some clinically-oriented research is not appropriate for Bio 200/500. In this case Bio 265 might be the appropriate choice to obtain credit.
Preparing for an interview
IMPORTANT: If you have worked in a lab before, you will almost certainly be asked about it. You should be prepared to say what you did and especially WHY you did it. You should be prepared to describe in a few sentences how the work you did fits into a larger biological context.
Before you go to talk with a potential mentor, try reading one of their papers. You will not understand everything, but you should be prepared to ask a question or two about its content. Also be prepared to answer the questions about any of your prior research experience: “How would you go about making 100 ml solution of 0.1 M NaCl?”
At your interview, be certain to ask with whom you will be working with on an everyday basis. In most labs you will most likely begin by learning from one or several lab members (technicians, post-docs and grad students). You will need to learn some basic methods and skills and be introduced to the project goals and strategies. It is common to have a ‘lab’ or ‘bench’ mentor with whom you will work on a daily basis. Arrange to talk with that person before accepting any offered position. You may ask them questions such as: Dr. X has said she would be glad to have me do research in the lab, but my question for you is: Will you be glad to be responsible for an undergraduate?” OR, “Have you ever worked with an undergraduate researcher before?” Make sure that this person is a good fit for you and what you hope to achieve with your experience in the lab.
Expectations of Students and Mentors
Typically a student will start Bio 200/500 in the sophomore or junior year, often in the spring. Much of the first semester is taken up with the student learning techniques and mastering the background and intellectual context of the ongoing research in the laboratory. Our experience is that students will often ask questions if they do not understand one or another specific point, but that sometimes they need help in assimilating the overall perspective even when they correctly understand each detail. We ask that the student be given material to read and then report back to the mentor. Many people find a more or less formal presentation by the student to be a good way to report. In addition, students should participate in lab meetings and journal club, if their schedule permits, and should be asked to present at appropriate intervals. For the student’s first semester in the lab, the “description of research” may be general and is often derived from material written by the mentor. However, the student should write the description. By the end of the first semester, the student should have sufficient mastery of techniques and intellectual context to participate in developing an experimental plan and to prepare the “description of research.”
Projects should have defined goals. Most often the goals are not realized in one semester. The Biology Department recommends that the student be asked for a brief formal report(s) either at times dictated by the rhythm of the work or at the end of the semester. This should require the student to think hard about what she or he has been doing. This is an extremely useful experience at this early stage.
Students may work either directly with the mentor or with someone of the mentor’s choice; e.g., research associate, post-doc, senior graduate student, technician. Most often the latter works out very well. However, in such cases we ask two things of the mentor: (1) The mentor should be sure, on the basis of a specific discussion, that the lab member who will work most closely with the student is enthusiastic about the prospect. If that lab member is hesitant, please reconsider the arrangement. (2) The mentor should consider herself or himself still responsible. We encourage the mentor to meet from time to time with the student to monitor progress in understanding and achievement, as well as to lend encouragement.
As all mentors know, considerable care must be taken if the initial research experience of an undergraduate student is to be successful. It is important that the student be in an active and productive setting, one in which good work is done and then published. However, students are advised to exercise caution before going into a lab that is so large that the undergraduate might get lost in the shuffle. We ask mentors not affiliated with the Division of Biology and Biomedical Science to provide a current CV (unless one is already on file in the Department) to Mr. Patrick Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Although project goals usually cannot be met in one semester, occasionally, either student or mentor does not care to extend the arrangement beyond the first semester and both must feel absolutely free to terminate the relationship after one semester. In that case, we hope the student will come away with a working knowledge of new techniques and a taste of the culture of experimental science. But usually students continue in Bio 500 for at least 3 semesters. In addition, they often have paying jobs/fellowships in the laboratory during the summer. In the remaining time in the lab beyond the first semester, the student builds, in obvious ways, on the foundation that has been laid. There is some danger that, during the second semester or so, the mentor will begin to view the student as an experienced researcher and that the amount of interaction between the mentor and the student will decrease as a result. We ask mentors and students to guard against this possibility.
Practical considerations for a successful experience:
Be certain that you leave two big blocks of time in your schedule. You will be expected to spend 10-12 hrs/wk in the lab for 3 units of credit. 2 days x 6 hrs/day is far preferable to 6 days x 2 hrs/day.
The amount you can do during the semester is limited by the demands of your courses. Guard against spending too much time in the lab. It is a considerable temptation, if things are going well, to find it more agreeable to be in the lab than studying for some course that you are not enthralled with. Resist the temptation. In general, limit yourself to 10-12 hrs/wk.
Initially, you will interact mostly with your lab mentor. You will be learning techniques and discovering how the research questions are addressed. This requires an investment of your time and energy and ALSO THE TIME, ENERGY, and RESOURCES [grant money] of the lab. Usually the payoff for both the lab and you comes after several semesters, when you begin to function more independently and interact with others in the research setting as an equal. As your project progresses you will interact not only with your ‘lab mentor,’ but other researchers in the lab [and in other labs with similar interests] and the lab head (PI = principle investigator). Do not be discouraged if, at first, you do not spend a lot of time working directly with the PI.
If you still have questions after careful inspection of the information on this page, please contact Dr. Ken Olsen (email@example.com) or Patrick Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org). For questions regarding Bio 500N/U please contact Dr. Mary Lambo (email@example.com) or Patrick Clark (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Other research courses for credit
Occasionally, there is confusion on the part of a student or a mentor on the difference between Biology 200/500 (Independent Study), General Studies 2991 (Internship) and a paid job. Sometimes the actual work performed for a paid job is quite consistent with independent study, but the employer certainly has the right to ask an employee to pour plates, wash dishes, etc., with the aim of facilitating the work of someone else in the lab. Facilitating the work of others would, of course, be an inappropriate primary goal for a Bio 200/500 student. Tasks assigned a Bio 200/500 student should have as their object learning things that will probably be needed in the student’s project. This does not preclude the Bio 200/500 student doing a fair share of the routine lab chores, if these are shared by all lab personnel. There are occasions when a student would prefer to be “another pair of hands” while taking no independent responsibility for the scientific work. That is a legitimate experience and is provided for under the rubric of General Studies 2991.
|L43 GeSt 2991||An Internship for Liberal Arts Students||Var. Units (max = 3.0)|
In addition, we offer Bio 265, (Experiences in the Life Sciences) for students whose primary goal is to gain practical experience; e.g., by “shadowing” a physician or developing and teaching primary or secondary school curriculum in collaboration with a classroom teacher. For a more complete description go to: https://sites.wustl.edu/bio265/
The Biology Department realizes that the distinctions among the categories are not absolutely clear-cut. We ask either students or mentors who are uncertain about the department’s expectations to discuss the matter with us by contacting Patrick Clark at email@example.com.