Undergraduate Research – some examples

Jake, Chad, Rob, Janet, Chad again and Chad again. have already written everything important about today’s Buzz topic – the undergraduate research. What I will do is add a few examples and you draw conclusions why this worked (or not) for each one of them.
A Self-Starter
Kevin Messenger loved snakes all his life. He did his own research in high school, a standard survey of herps in the Sandhills area of North Carolina. He presented that at a meeting of the Herps society while a high-school senior. He went to college to NCSU because he wanted to work with Hal Heathwole. He got his own first grant as a college freshman which resulted in a really nifty (I think still not published, but presented) paper on the effects of moonlight on nocturnal snake activity. He breezed through college. Nobody really cared if he got Ds in English or Chemistry classes – he aced all biology classes though, including some graduate level courses he took quite early on. He also got involved in some gecko research with my lab-buddy Chris. He barely graduated when he already had a grant to go to China to do a herps survey of a previously unsurveyed (and rarely visited by Westerners) are of China. He reported his findings in a series of guests posts on this blog. What a fun way to get a Masters…
A Surprise
Laura Jolley was considered by some of our faculty here to be a bookish type – excellent grades, but perhaps growing up with too sheltered life to want to get dirty with research. So when she applied for a hard-to-get grant to go to Africa to do AIDS research most were reluctant to sign a letter of support for her. Dr.Nick Haddad, who saw her in actiuon in his ecology core course, gladly signed and was delighted when she actually got the money. You have to scroll down here (one should think NCSU folks would learn the notion of permalink by now!) to read about her accomplishments and I have also mentioned her in this post. She spent two summers in Ghana and one in Lesotho living with the locals, doing the research on local attitudes and knowledge about sex and AIDS and devising strategies for education and prevention. She is in graduate school up in DC right now studying public health and epidemiology.
A Hidden Gem
Amy Hughes was my student in a physiology lab which, as its most important component, has an independent project. Amy is smart, but was shy and not with the greatest of the GPEs in the world at the time. She had no idea what to do for her project except that she liked handling crayfish in one of the lab exercises and wanted to work alone (i.e., not teamed up with another student or two). I have no idea how and why I figured out that she would be just the right person to do this long and tedious study, but she did brilliantly and when I showed the data to a professor he promptly got some funding for Amy to repeat and continue the work as her honors project. The result is the first ever study published on a blog – the famous crayfish circadian/melatonin/aggression post. She went on to Minnesota where she got a MS in epidemiology (I think her work there should be published by now), came back to NCSU for some more fun and classes and will start medical school next semester. Oh, and she came to the Science Blogging Conference.
Obvious from the beginning
Elizabeth Daubert was one of those straight A students who ran out of classes and had to take all graduate-level courses in her senior year, including the extremely tough two-semester General Physiology with Bob Grossfeld (NCSU is a big campus yet it is eerily quiet on the days when there is an exam in this course). My PI did not do any undergraduate research, but when Chris and I were running the lab (and far too many experiments) he let us hire undergrads to help us. Most of the people we hired were pretty much content to be paid to feed the animals, but Elizabeth wanted to do research. And she did. She got fully involved in several of my experiements – all aspects of it, not just the drudgery work. Now, my boss is a brutally honest person and, if he is not prepared to write a stellar letter of recommendation for you, he’ll politely refuse to write one at all. But he wrote a letter for Elizabeth when she started applying to grad schools. Every place she applied to (except Stanford) called her for an interview and wherever she went she was referred to as the “candidate with the Underwood letter”! I have no idea what he wrote, but people in the field understand that if he writes one, it is to be taken seriously. She got accepted/invited everywhere. She is happily enjoying (scroll down) her neuroscience graduate studies at University of Virginia right now.
Now go read what others have written about the theory of undergraduate research and think how Kevin, Laura, Amy and Elizabeth fit in there.
Update: Kate, Propter Doc, Guru, Laelaps, Jason and Kayhan add their experiences.
Update: Jenna and Larry add their perspectives.

3 responses to “Undergraduate Research – some examples

  1. As always, thanks for the link Bora; one of these days I’ll have something positive to say about college, I swear!

  2. Cool stuff! I have been enjoying being part of different labs now for a year. I’m meeting lots of people… but the downside is that I’m away from the computer a lot.

  3. Ok, I’ve written something about undergrad life…:
    http://gonesavage.wordpress.com/2007/05/04/mri-presentation-done/
    I hope it’s a useful insight…