Tips for Summer Research

Hello, and happy summer!

It has been far too long since I’ve updated this site and added a post, but now is a good time to give some advice for those of you (many of you) who will be doing research this summer!  (Side note: during the semester, I meant to write a post for those of you who weren’t able to get into the program you wanted.  Briefly, my advice, when I do get to writing that post, will be to not take a delay in getting research experience personally or as a sign that research isn’t right for you.  It has been a challenging couple of years for everyone, and you might need to shift your goals a bit, but that is totally normal. It is ok to take the time needed to get this important experience.  More about that later.)  This is quite a long post, but I think you’ll appreciate the nuggets of info here.

First off, I sincerely hope you enjoy your research experience.  Like I say in most of my classes, I think that doing research is WAY more fun than labs associated with classes are (I probably shouldn’t say that out loud, but I have to be honest 😉 ), and I hope you end up feeling the same way, even if you do like labs.  I hope you have a supportive advisor who challenges you but gives you lots of independence.  For most of you, you’ll be doing techniques that are probably totally new to you, and it is totally normal to mess up a few times, so try not to feel too bad when that inevitably happens.  I have a few pieces of advice for you as you begin your work. 

Embrace the steep learning curve

If you’re anything like me, having a new learning experience that is very different from previous experiences might be a bit uncomfortable.  There will be new topics and new skills that you’ll need to pick up a bit more quickly than you’re used to, and most importantly, you’ll need to take ownership over this information.  The learning environment won’t be like a classroom, and there won’t be a textbook or lecture notes for you to follow.  So, you’ll need to be very intentional about taking notes and making sure you understand the material.  I suggest that you take a spiral notebook everywhere with you and take tons of notes.  Make this spiral notebook separate from your lab notebook, as a general source of information that you can keep referring to.  When I first started in the lab, I would even re-copy my notes that evening and add in details that I could remember but that I didn’t write down while in lab.  Your research mentor will expect you to learn information the first time around, so be sure to review your notes every night to help solidify the info.  Also, if your research advisor draws something on a whiteboard, use your cell phone to snap a picture, and re-draw the notes for yourself later that day so that you can ensure that it makes sense for yourself.  If it looks like they will erase the notes, kindly ask to take a picture first so that you don’t lose anything.

There likely be a lot of new terms that you’ve never heard.  Don’t be afraid to ask for more information if you hear something totally new.  If you’re like me, you might be a bit uncomfortable asking so many questions, so be sure to jot down terms to look up on your own, too.  Trust me: Google will be your best friend.  I’d suggest that you try not to just rely on your research mentor to make sense of information.  Figuring out how to find information on your own is a huge part of a research experience, and we are lucky to have so much info available online.  Definitely take advantage of that.

Ask Questions

I might have made it seem like you need to figure things out on your own above.  Yes, the goal is for you to begin to gain independence, but your research mentor will often be able to answer questions that might take you a long time to answer on your own or which you won’t be able to find on your own at all.  Don’t hesitate to ask a ton of questions!  Your advisor knows that a big part of their job is to help clarify information.  However, I do suggest that you learn as much as you can on your own so that your questions are thoughtful. 🙂  Also, you’ll likely be in a lab environment with many other researchers—other undergraduate students, or maybe graduate students or post-doctoral researchers, too (depending on your environment).  You can ask other people, even your peers, questions, too.  It will be a great way to get to know other people to ask them something you’re unsure of or even to ask about what they are working on!

Don’t shy away from “sounding stupid” in asking lots of questions.  Personally, I was known to ask lots of questions.  I was unsure of myself, so I often started out by saying “This might be a dumb question ….”, but everyone told me to stop thinking my questions were bad.  I’ve since learned how valuable it is to ask questions, not only for my own understanding, but for other people, even the person giving the information, so that a better understanding could be reached.  Learning how to ask questions so that it is clear is also an important skill, so use this opportunity to practice that skill.

Depending on your environment, you’ll probably also have lab meetings and maybe even departmental seminars.  Be sure to branch out and ask questions at these events too.  Not only will you be able to learn more, you’ll also develop your skills as a question-asker, and your research advisor will notice your curiosity.  Even if you’re in an environment where you might feel like you’re too insignificant to ask a clarifying question, I want to challenge you to be bold and raise your hand with a question—it is likely something someone else was also wondering.

Keep a strong Lab Notebook

Your lab will probably give you some guidelines about how to keep a lab notebook.  I want to supplement that with some of my own advice.  First off: there is no such thing as too much detail.  Remember that the point of the notebook is for you to be able to repeat the experiment exactly.  Imagine that your future self is looking at your notes 10 years from now and needs to tell someone how to do the experiment.  Give enough detail to do that without uncertainty.  Another purpose for taking good notes is that there is always a chance that an experiment might not work.  Honestly, this will probably happen a lot, and if you don’t take notes, you’ll struggle to remember what you did to potentially mess it up.  More notes means that you can help clarify with your research advisor what to update in the future.  For example, if you’re making a solution, I would write down the concentration you’re aiming to make (of course), but also take notes about the mass and volumes you used.  Make sure there is enough information for you or someone else to makes sense of it.  I’ve even had a lab contact me 5 years after I left the lab to interpret my notes.  Luckily, I put enough information to tell them what they needed to know (whew!).  I would also suggest that you ask if you can bring a copy of this notebook back home with you, too (if it is a physical notebook).  That way you have a reference to answer any questions that people might have of you after you leave.

Another thing I would include in the notebook is information about where the reagents you’re using are.  The whole lab will be new to you, and the chemicals and equipment you’re using might be located in different spots in the lab or in totally different rooms.  Your research advisor might show you how to do an experiment once and then expect you to be able to complete the experiment on your own the next time.  Trust me, it is a little embarrassing to ask where a specific chemical is once you’ve been shown.  Try to avoid that embarrassment by taking diligent notes.  As you’re working through an experiment, it is completely ok to tell your research advisor to slow down and give you time to take these notes.

Try to know the “why” and “how”

As you’re doing an experiment, try not to slip into the mindset of simply getting through a protocol and figuring it out later (maybe you’ve done this in lab for a class?).  It is very important for you to know why you are doing a specific experiment and the purpose of each step.  You might not fully grasp the “why” early in your research project, but make sure to ask yourself and/or your research advisor this question before getting started.  Jot this down in your notes, and each piece will start to fit together over time.

It is also super important to know how the experiment works before you do it.  I suggest that before you leave the lab for the day, make sure you know what you’ll be doing in lab the next day, and spend the evening Googling that experiment so that you know how it works before you begin.  Take notes in your spiral notebook and review the notes before going to lab the next day.  Doing this will help keep you from being totally overwhelmed as you’re doing a new experiment, and it will also help prevent mistakes and keep you from having to repeat the experiment again.  There is so much new information as you begin to work in a lab, so do your future self a favor and prepare as best as possible in advance.

Read journal articles for understanding

Here’s the doozy: your research advisor will likely give you a small collection of journal articles related to your project.  Oh boy, this can be so scary as a new researcher.  I remember not even understanding half of the words in these articles let alone knowing how they related to my project.  Here is my advice: read these articles slowly and carefully, with a computer nearby for Googling.  Every time you come across a new term, spend at least a little time trying to understand it.  If it were me, I would read through the abstract quickly (probably not really understanding it).  I would then carefully read the introduction, to at least get a passing understanding of the goals of the work.  Then the results section is where you really want to try to fully understand as best as possible: here is where you want to Google and take your time.  Finally, read through the discussion, taking note of important interpretations.  I would then read through the entire paper at least one more time to ensure it makes more sense.  Expect to spend hours (like 5-10 hours) on each paper.  Once you’ve done this, it is now time to read the papers cited in the paper.  You’re not done when you’ve read the papers your advisor originally gave you—take ownership over the information and read the papers that seem most important based on the reading you’ve already done.  You can then ask your advisor for more articles, but before you do that, make sure you understand what they have already given you.  This is probably the most serious advice I can give: it is up to you to push yourself to understand these articles as best as you can; do not be passive in reading these articles.  Google and ask questions.  And get started reading these papers even before you start (maybe even reach out to your advisor to ask for some papers to read a week or two before you start!).  If you put in the effort from the beginning, it gets easier to read these papers with time.  🙂  I suggest you spend enough time reading early-on so that you have a strong foundation by half-way through your experience.

Other suggestions

You’ll likely have some form of a presentation at the end of the research experience.  I suggest you begin working on this presentation early.  I said above that you should have a strong understanding of your work by half-way through the experience, so you should certainly be able to prepare the introduction to your presentation by the half-way point.  Put a reminder in your calendar on this date to begin working on your presentation.  It is very likely that rather than things slowing down toward the end of your experience that you’ll be rushing to finish up the project at the end.  So, you won’t have tons of time to devote to the presentation in the last week or two.  I suggest you aim to have a rough draft completed by two weeks before your presentation, and you can then add in the final data as needed.  Your future self will thank you for the work you’ve put into a presentation early so that you can devote some good time to the bench work at the end.  In my experience, the last week or two is when 90% of the usable data is produced because this is when students are really comfortable with what they are doing.  You’ll want to get as much good data as possible so that your name can go on a publication in the future, so give yourself this time by having your presentation in good shape early.

Get to know your peers.  I’ve been SO surprised by how the people I met as an undergrad have kept popping up throughout my career.  I wish I had fostered these connections more.  Definitely go to social events and work hard to get to know the people in your lab and in your program.  I made the mistake of thinking that I’d only interact with my peers temporarily, so I didn’t really make an effort to reach out for coffee or social events.  Don’t be like me.  😉 It is good both personally (for your enjoyment and mental health) and professionally (future contacts/networking) to become friends while you’re with these fellow scientists.

Finally, don’t forget the purpose of this experience.  Yes, it is so that you learn how to do research, and even better, so that you can contribute to scientific understanding (and maybe even be an author on a paper!).  But it is also for your professional development.  You’ll be writing about this experience in personal statements in future applications.  Be sure that you keep enough information so that you can remind yourself about your contributions to the project in the future.  In these future applications, it is important to demonstrate your scientific contributions (not the techniques you used but what you were testing and what you found), so I suggest that after the summer is over, you keep your spiral notebook somewhere safe, and you make sure to save your presentation somewhere that you can easily find it in the future.  Personally, I had an interview for graduate school where the professor was an expert in the field that I had worked in during a previous research experience.  It was a good thing that I reminded myself of my work before the interview so that I could answer his questions.  Remember that the experience isn’t over when the summer ends.

Finally, remember that another purpose of this experience is to get the all-important recommendation letter for future applications.  Of course, the letter shouldn’t be your driving force for working hard, but definitely keep it in mind.  You’ll want to make sure your enthusiasm is clear, that you’re a fast learner and good thinker, that you ask good questions, and that you produce high-quality data.  Even in my two years as a professor, I’ve written a lot of letters of recommendation, and I try to make each one personal and draw on what I know about a student.  Especially if you’re in a situation where your professor doesn’t interact with undergrads a lot, you’ll want to do your best to stand out.  And if you’re working with a graduate student, they will certainly be in communication with the professor, too.  So do all of that work to read and prepare so that this can be a fruitful experience for everyone.

Best of luck and let me know if I can answer any questions at all!  Also check out this post for more tips from my sister at Vanderbilt, too!  Have fun at the bench!!!  🙂

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