Website Helps Undergraduate Students Gain Valuable Lab Experience

Website Helps Undergraduate Students Gain Valuable Lab Experience

“Undergrad in the Lab” is a website started by Paris Grey and David Oppenheimer to provide resources that help undergraduate students attain meaningful experiences in the lab. We recently spoke with one of the founders, Paris, about the website and why she believes lab experience for undergraduate students can be so valuable.

Paris is a coordinator of research programs in the biology department at the University of Florida. She has almost 20 years of experience as a research mentor and advisor for undergraduate students. During her undergraduate career, she was lucky enough to work with some amazing post-doc researchers who really took the time to explain the research processes to her. This is something that has stuck with Paris over the course of her career and even influenced her career path. Paris’ current research focus involves determining the function of novel proteins involved in plant cell expansion.

When asked why she decided to cofound “Undergrad in the Lab,” Paris replied, “To help undergrads build meaningful connections with their project, their lab mates, and science—whether they participate in research for a single semester, a full-time summer, or several years.”

The actual timing of how the blog started was a happy accident. The pair were awaiting the publication of their first book: “Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience”. They decided to start a Twitter account to promote it and share some research tips, but they had trouble finding a handle that wasn’t already taken. But when David typed in “Undergrad in the Lab,” it hadn’t been taken, and they both knew that it was so perfect that they created a blog with the same name.

“Undergrad in the Lab” reveals Paris’s passion for helping undergraduate students gain research experience. She feels that all students gain new knowledge in college, but not all gain new skills. Paris explains that there are many opportunities for students to develop their skills if they go into a lab ready to work, learn, and contribute. However, once a student finds a lab opportunity there are few resources to guide them, so “Undergrad in the Lab” aims to fill this gap. The most common inquiries they receive are about understanding if an experience is a good fit, if they are on track, and how they can better connect with a seemingly unengaged mentor.

One of the major barriers to students gaining lab experience is the long search and application process which can seem daunting to even the most enthusiastic and committed students. “Undergrad in the Lab” works to mitigate some of this difficulty by educating students about how to best impress potential advisors and mentors. This practice came after David and Paris interviewed students and mentors and realized they often did not have the same ideas about what is impressive.

The tips shared on “Undergrad in the Lab” have helped many students have successful lab experiences. The topics they choose to cover are often influenced by questions they receive on social media. For example, Paris said: “one undergrad reached out because they were pressured by an unreliable friend to get them a research position in the same lab, which inspired a post on the site.” Mentors also reach out to the team, for example, recently, a principal investigator wanted to know what they should ask of their students before writing a recommendation letter. The Undergrad in the Lab Team is always happy to help those who reach out.

Not only can lab experience benefit the undergraduate students, but also their mentors and supervisors. Often, undergrads aren’t given the credit they deserve when working on research, but dedicated students can move a project forward and often contribute great ideas. This is something lab teams should keep in mind when considering whether or not to hire undergraduate students.

To conclude, we asked Paris what her favorite tip is that has been shared on the website. While she says she could never choose an all time favorite, she did share her current favorite bench tip with us, which is including storage temperatures on reagent bottles. She calls this a “must” for new researchers. Additionally, she shared a favorite academic tip: “Apply for a scholarship or fellowship each semester—even if it’s not one related to research.” This is a great tip for all students, not just those involved in scientific work. Overall, Paris truly demonstrates the benefits of having undergraduate students involved in lab work and her website successfully gives students the tools they need to get there!

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