Just keep swimming! You’ll find your lab!

In our new weekly column, Science Wisdom, we’ll be bringing you some tips and tricks on navigating STEM at Columbia. To kick this off, we tackle one of the biggest questions: how do you get started in research and find a lab to work with? Briley Lewis, senior astrophysics major and former president of the CU Astronomy Club, BlueShift, and Alex Tang, biology major and Bwog science editor, weigh in with their experiences and what they’ve learned during their time at Columbia.

Getting started in research can be terrifying, especially when you look around at everyone else and wonder how they have it all together. I’ll let you in on a little secret: everyone who you think has it together has felt how you do. Everyone has been unsure of what they’re doing, been nervous about emailing a professor, and wondered if what they’re doing is enough.

So, forget about everyone else! You’re not too late, and you’re not too young – if you’re excited about a subject and want to delve into a topic, you should go for it.

Here are some tips for how to find out about opportunities, decide who to reach out to, and choose what’s a good fit for you:

  • See what topics are out there. Check out the websites of your major department (or departments you’re interested in). Department websites usually have faculty profiles, and faculty often have their own websites. While reading through the profiles, take note of the ones that spark interest in you. Think about your greater scientific interests: do you want to learn about cancer cell division? Explore the atmospheres on different planets? Learn how monkeys communicate with each other? There’s bound to be a lab for that!
  • Contact people to talk about opportunities. Yes, it is up to YOU to contact professors and see if they have the time/funding to accept a new student into their group. Don’t be afraid, though, because most scientists are excited about their work and are open to chatting with students. If you’re sending out an email, be sure to personalize the email to each professor (no generic letters)! Read through a couple of the professor’s research paper abstracts, and mention your interest in specific projects that the lab has worked on. In your email, attach a document that will detail your grades, work availability, and relevant courses. Although emails work fine, a better idea would be to see if they have office hours, or a time where you could go chat in person!

  • Persevere. Lots of people at Columbia find a lab just by sending out emails. However, it’s completely natural to experience lots of negative responses (or non-responses). Professors are incredibly busy with classes, research, and their own lives, so never take it personally. A way to get a better response rate is to really personalize your email to each professor. The more relevant your email is to the lab, the more seriously that professor will take you.
  • If meeting a professor in person, prepare yourself! The professor’s website is your best friend: read the papers (or at least the abstracts) your professor has published. It’s okay if a lot of it feels over your head – professors don’t expect you to know everything. However, they do expect you to ask questions about their research, if you’re meeting them in person. Examples of specific questions might be about why the professor chose to use a certain scientific technique over another, the broader relevance of the project to the field, and challenges that the researchers faced during the project.
  • Really think about what you want out of this experience, and pay attention to how each lab operates. If you’re just starting out in research, you’re bound to have a huge learning curve (it happens to all of us). Will the lab assign you a more experienced researcher (grad students, post-docs, or even the professor) to work with you? Furthermore, pay attention to how big the lab is. If the lab is small, you’re likely to find more personalized attention, and have more face-time with the professor. However, a bigger lab might have more resources and people to help you. Find out if the lab has hosted undergraduate students before, and see how they’ve done in the lab. What kinds of projects were they assigned?
  • Be humble and think long-term. Lots of labs see undergraduate students who work for a small amount of time, then disappear afterwards. If you’re serious about research, mention the fact that you’re interested in working in the lab long-term (this is why labs tend to like recruiting freshmen and sophomores). You’ll most likely start off in the lab as a volunteer (or paid, if you’re in the work-study program). As you spend months, possibly years, in the lab, you’ll get to develop relationships with your professor and fellow researchers. These relationships are invaluable, as they translate into professional advice, summer opportunities, recommendation letters, more independence in the lab, and a greater understanding of how science is practiced in your field.

You may be thinking, “What if I go through all this and they say they don’t have time or reject me in some way?!” Well, that’s okay – getting started takes initiative and a lot of courage. Just keep swimming, and try again! It’s okay if it takes a bit to find the right fit for you. You’ve got this!