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Science 101: Getting Started In Lab Research

pro-tip: some of the labs in NoCo have the best views on campus!

Welcome back to Science 101, Bwog’s semi-regular advice column geared towards science students. In this edition, Bwog’s Science Editor, biology major, and third-year Alex Tang provides tips on getting involved in science research on and off campus. Spring Break is the perfect time to start looking!

Happy Spring Break! Midterms are over, and so is our motivation. But wait! Are you a science student who’s looking to get into research? Maybe you’ve been too busy to get involved during the school year, and you’re looking to get involved in research during the summer. If so, Spring Break is the perfect time to start looking for a lab. Here are some tips to get you started:

  • Find out what topics interest you! The easiest places to start are Columbia’s individual science departmental websites, as well as Columbia’s medical school website, where you can find out what faculty members are conducting research. Visit each professor’s website, and read about the research they do. Don’t let the highly technical language intimidate you – stuff on faculty websites tend to be geared toward prospective graduate students, so just try to get the gist of what the lab does.
  • Contact professors whom you’d like to work with. Come up with a list of 5-10 professors whose work interests you. Draft an email to send to each professor – do not copy and paste an identical email for each professor. Rather, many of my peers and I have found that you’ll tend to get more positive responses if your email is more personalized. In your email to each professor, write about who you are and why you’re interested in THEIR research. Make it clear that you have some idea of what they do. To do so, it would be a good idea to skim through some of their most recent publications (through CLIO or Google Scholar).
  • Make your email concise but informative. Tell the professor about who you are, any relevant classes you’ve taken in the sciences, and your availability during the upcoming months/summer. End your email by stating that you’d like to meet with the professor to learn more about their research.
    • Note: You do NOT need prior research experience to get into research! Professors understand that everyone has to start from the beginning – if you’re an underclassman who’s never done research before, or if you only have gen chem under your belt, don’t fret! You’ll still get into a lab.

  • Be patient, persistent, and polite. Research professors are incredibly busy individuals. Most of your emails will get ignored, and/or you’ll get a negative response. Never take it personally. Sometimes professors already have many undergraduates in their lab, or they don’t have supervision available to take on a new student. If professors don’t respond within a week, you may send a polite follow-up email to ask again.
  • Meet with the professor. You’ll (eventually) get an email from a professor saying that they’d be interested in meeting with you. That means that you have a potential spot in their lab! Prepare for your meeting by reading up on some of the lab’s most recent publications, and come up with some questions you can ask the professor. Once again, you don’t need to understand their research completely – just make it clear that you’ve taken the initiative to learn about their research on your own. Dress nicely and be on time!

If you’re just getting into research, and you’re planning to work in a lab this summer, you might be wondering how you’d get funded. Here are a couple options:

  • Apply to Columbia summer funding sources. The application of Columbia SURF and Barnard SRI may have passed, but there are some sources that are still available. Some options (and their deadlines) include:
  • Ask your professor for funding directly. This is a little riskier. You should only ask your professor for funding once they’ve known you for at least a few weeks. You should have made a good impression by demonstrating yourself to be a smart, reliable student in lab. When requesting summer funding, be proactive and propose a feasible project that you could accomplish over the summer.
  • Commute from home (or work at a lab closer to home). If you live in or near New York City, consider commuting to lab from home! If you’re not from New York City, think about finding lab opportunities closer to you, at a nearer institution. All the tips above apply, when finding research off campus. Learn about prospective PIs and send out personalized emails.

We hope you’ve found at least some of these tips helpful. Good luck, and happy Spring Break!

NoCo via wikimedia commons

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