By Lauren Koenig
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a huge disruption for undergraduates hoping to gain research experience while in college. Under ordinary circumstances, many STEM majors often volunteer or work in a research lab to gain course credit, fulfill work study jobs, earn critical experience to prepare for graduate school or medical school, and find out if a job in STEM is right for them. With many schools moving online and some labs moving to remote work, it can be hard to find programs and mentors that continue to offer research experience.
Fortunately, the pandemic hasn’t put a stop to science. Many researchers out there are still looking for help. If you’re interested in getting involved in research, there are several options available in whichever format works best for you.
Working with your major adviser to find a research lab
If you’re an undergraduate majoring in the sciences, you should start by talking with your major adviser about getting research experience. Your adviser will ask you what type of research you’re most interested in working on, so you should take some time beforehand to browse the website of your department (or related departments) to identify faculty that focus on research topics and tools of interest to you. Working with them would be an opportunity for you get to experience in specific skills that might help you do this type of research yourself, so think about both the subject matter and the equipment you’ll be using. For example, are you someone who would rather be preparing slides and looking through a microscope or would you prefer to be coding on your laptop? Which skills might benefit your intended career? Are you interested in only doing work that could be done remotely if necessary?
Your major adviser should be familiar with the other faculty in your department and may be able to recommend faculty who are principal investigators (PIs) and run labs that do research in your area of interest. You can also check these PIs’ websites to see if they have other undergraduates in their lab and what kind of work these students do. Some undergraduates assist graduate students and provide support to the lab, while others run independent projects of their own.
You’ll also need to talk with your adviser about whether this work will count towards college credit or be part of a volunteer position. Some majors require a certain amount of research credit, so try to figure out if this is something you’ll need to start on early in your time at school.
Once you’ve settled on a prospective PI who seems like a good research adviser, send them an email to see if they have availability in their lab, need undergraduate volunteers, or would be willing to advise you on an independent project. Check the status of your university’s COVID policies and ask the PI how they’re working with these policies.
In-Person vs. Remote Research Options
Some university labs are not allowed to take on new undergraduates, while others are still accepting volunteers. These policies are also changing depending on statewide orders. If you’re on campus and you have the option to work in a safe, socially-distanced lab, your experience may be very similar to undergraduate research experience before COVID. You may work with your PI, a postdoctoral associate, or a graduate student to be trained, for example, on where things are located in the lab and how to do basic benchwork.
If you’re not on campus or unable to go to a lab, ask the PI if they need help with data analysis or a literature review. Both of these are very important for the research process and would be valuable skills for your own resume. If you already know some coding or bioinformatics, you may be able to help a PI work through a backlog of collected data and design a new project based on your analysis. Lab members may be able to help train you on these types of skills, but you can also pursue other options to learn them on your own (see Coding Classes below).
Finding other research mentors
Your university may have other programs available that would help match you with a research mentor. For example, the University of Oregon has a program called the Knight Campus Undergraduate Research Scholars, which pairs undergraduates with prospective mentors to work on an independent research project (and provides a great stipend to support that work)!
Graduate students at your university are also a great resource, as many of them could use the help on their own projects or are eager to mentor undergraduates on an independent project related to their thesis work. The University of Oregon hosts another program, Joint Undergrad Graduate Mentorship Program – JUMP!, which helps establish mentoring relationships between undergraduates and graduate students in scientific disciplines. You might also want to contact the president or outreach coordinator of women in science organizations on your campus, such as Graduate Women in Science, who may be able to share your request with the larger network and put you in touch with a graduate student mentor that way. Other women in science networks, in addition to the Scientista Foundation, include the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) and the Women in Nature Network (WINN).
You may also have heard of the competitive National Science Foundation Research for Undergraduate Experience program. This is a fantastic program that pairs undergraduates with faculty and other researchers to work on a specific research project at a host institution or field station. Most locations are in the US, but some are international. Be sure to check their website for deadlines and whether research sites are offering remote opportunities this year. Your adviser or an NSF program manager at your university may be able to provide more information and help you with your application. Also, note that this program is only available to US citizens and permanent residents.
Coding classes, online workshops, and conferences
If you’re working remotely and bogged down with your course schedule, there are other ways to gain research skills without committing to working right away in a lab or on an independent project. Now is a great time to learn coding at your own pace or join online workshops. For example, your university may offer free coding workshops through organizations such as R-Ladies. Other well-known online coding programs are offered through Coursera and Udemy. Keep an eye out for emails from your department that advertise online workshops that might provide a more interpersonal connection since they’re through your university. Again, feel free to contact women in science organizations on your campus about this because they may have more information about what’s available at your school – many workshops are hosted by the graduate students themselves.
If you’re interested in workshops more specific to your field, following your favorite organizations on twitter is a great place to catch these types of advertisements. For example, Minorities in Shark Sciences frequently shares opportunities for becoming involved in marine biology both online and in person, such as this Smithsonian Internship in Marine Biodiversity Science and the free, online Young Marine Biologist summit.
Anytime is a great time to get involved in science communication. But if you’re stuck working mostly on your laptop, taking a break to write about science for a general audience can help you clarify your own ideas and the way you think about research. At the same time, you’ll increase your outreach experience and get a head start on setting up a writing portfolio. Science communication can help make research more accessible and interesting for people who may not have a background in science or have access to research behind a paywall. Science communication also includes both paid and volunteer gigs.
Scientista’s online blog is always accepting new bloggers for our online magazine, as well as guest posts on a variety of topics related to science and women in science (to apply just email firstname.lastname@example.org). Our editors work with you to develop your writing skills so that you create pieces you can later use as writing samples for jobs and fellowship applications. Outside of Scientista, you can also sign up with Massive Science to get more practice with science communication or write a blog post for your university about your own research if you already have some research experience (your department’s public affairs person may best be able to help you get started).
There are a rotating number of jobs and internships focused on science communication and social media (many remote), such as the NOVA Science Studio, Pop Sci, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The science communication facebook group is a great place to find these when they’re offered seasonally, as well as advertisements for other blogs that accept freelance writers.
Final words of advice
Becoming involved in research during a pandemic might seem extremely daunting, but there’s many ways to get involved as little or as much as you would like. Hands-on practice is the best way to figure out if a job in research is something you would like to do full-time. And anything you learn now can become a transferrable skill. Don’t be afraid to send lots of friendly (and succinct) emails asking for advice (and a gentle reminder email if you haven’t heard back in a few days). After all, anyone working in research today was once in the same position you are in now.
Do you have any other recommendations for how undergraduates can get involved in research? Leave questions or comments below, tweet @Scientista_Talk, IG @scientistafoundation or Facebook.
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