One of the reasons to go to a University like Harvard is the opportunity to do something that changes the world. For many STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) concentrators, that “something” is research. In an interview, on a tour, or written in bold on a brochure, world-class research opportunities are promised to the wide-eyed undergraduates lucky enough to claim this university as theirs.
As I discovered when I arrived at Harvard, one does not receive their lab assignment with their admissions decision. On campus many freshmen, sophomores, and juniors want to make their way into prestigious Harvard labs, and for the new kids, the lab hunt can be mysterious, intimidating, and frustrating. Six people in my dorm entryway alone were actively attempting to find a lab as winter break, and summer internship deadline, approached. The stress of securing a coveted lab position does not go well with midterm woes.
Fear not, though. Research is not imperative to be successful at Harvard, and although it is a great experience for STEM scholars, lab work absolutely can wait until Sophomore year, Junior year, or the summer. It’s a lot of work, and for a student adapting to the new pressures of college life, it can be beneficial to wait a semester or two before adding a big commitment like research on your plate. If you just can’t wait to start plating petri dishes, though, I’ve compiled a list of tips based on ways my friends from the class of 2018 found their way into labs.
1. Ask an advisor: A friend of mine planning to concentrate in physics found a lab willing to train him by talking with his advisor. Academic advisors can be a great resource if they are in the department or field you want to study. Even if they seem to work in an area unrelated to your probable concentration or research interests, many have far-reaching connections in the academic world. It never hurts to mention your desire to start research to someone assigned to help you get the most out of your freshman year.
2.Talk to friends and family: It’s a small world sometimes. Another freshman found a lab position by mentioning his interest in stem cell research to his sister, an alumnus, over the phone. She discussed it with a friend who had done stem cell research at Harvard, and he talked to his old principal investigator (PI). This crazy web of people-knowing-people landed my friend a position in this PI’s lab from a simple phone call.
3.Talk to professors: I know it is easier said than done, especially in the huge lecture courses (LS1a, the typical Harvard introduction to Life Sciences, *cough, cough*), but professors have office hours for a reason. If you are too intimidated to speak up in class or stay after to ask a question, attend office hours with a question or two about a topic from class that piqued your interest. Professors want to get to know their students, and they want their students to succeed. If you show genuine interest, they will do their best to help you achieve your goals. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t offer you a position in their lab right away either, finding a lab is similar to a treasure hunt. A little patience and a lot of determination are critical.
4.Attend events: My seminar lab partner found her lab by attending the Life Sciences undergraduate research fair. At the fair, she saw a poster describing research in which the researchers knocked out genes in zebra fish and observed the effects. She spoke to the researcher about the experiments, asked questions, and exchanged emails. Later on she sent a follow-up email and was asked to attend a lab meeting. Second semester she started doing research in that lab. The events held by the Office of Career Services or the departments are done to allow students who don’t have connections to make them. As another benefit, events like the research fair display a variety of research projects in different fields (in this case, different life science fields). If you don’t know what interests you, a showcase event can be a great place to start identifying your favorite research topics.
5.Google it: Like many, I lacked connections, and attempts to use my advisors and professors as resources helped me in my search, but didn’t prove instantly fruitful. I found labs that expressed interest in undergraduate assistants by scanning the Life Sciences concentration page research section, reading the Mind, Brain, Behavior lab listings, and keeping a watchful eye on the bulletin boards in the Science Center. When I saw a lab that looked interesting, I read through the lab page and a paper or two that the researchers recently published and sent an email expressing my interest in their research. I cannot say how critical it is to truly have and convey genuine interest in a lab’s research topic. If you pick a lab purely to do lab work, but do not actually like the area of research, it could be a negative experience for both you and those you work under. For every four or five emails, I would get an interview or an email asking for more information about me. I got three of these positive responses, but none of them resulted in a lab position. Finally, I was so frustrated that I googled “Alzheimer’s research Harvard University”. I knew that I wanted to do research pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease because of my family history with the disease, so I started going down the list, clicking on the top hits. I found a lab whose research shocked me. Their experiments were methodologically elegant, and the results both excited me and gave me hope. It was something that I wanted to know more about, that I wanted desperately to be apart of. I was very intimidated by the lab, made of post-docs and a handful of graduate students, and complained to a friend that the lab had no undergraduates in it. He responded, “Then you’ll get to be the first one.” I was. Moral of the story: if research is something you really want to do, don’t stop looking for a lab that is willing to help you. You have something to offer, even if it is just enthusiasm and a killer work ethic.
No two paths into research are identical because there are a myriad of ways to connect to labs. The most important thing is to be resilient and to choose work that you are sincerely interested in learning more about. The rest will fall into place, even for freshmen. Best of Luck!