7 Sep

Designing an Undergraduate Research Project

With the start of the semester comes new undergraduate students who are required to do research as part of their Biochemistry degree at Big State University. I am taking on my first undergrad and have been tasked with designing her project for the next two semesters.

When I’m thinking about what the goals should be when designing her project, a few jump to mind.

Obviously, to learn HOW research is done. How do you perform a literature search and how do you read to understand the articles you select? Leaning to try different things when something isn’t working. Making mistakes, and learning from them. And learning how to ask good questions.

Secondly, to learn science!! After all, we are a STEM field. I would think that by the end of a project the undergrad would understand the concepts and theory behind the techniques that they are performing in the lab.

Ideally, the undergrad will have an opportunity to interact with a range of scientist. My lab only has grad students and the professor (PI) but other labs generally have post-docs and/or technicians.

Finally, I hope that an undergrad that performs research will experience the joys and the frustrations that come with doing science.

An undergad should NOT be slave labor!!

With these goals in mind, I started to think about what a good project would be. Here is what I came up with:

  • as simple as possible: they should be able to complete the project on their own and in a semester (or two if you are lucky)
  • illustrate important concepts: the whole point of them doing research is to gain hands-on experience of concepts they learn in class
  • it should allow the student to actually understand what is going on: the concepts shouldn’t be out of the grasp of the student
  • connect the theory they learn in class to the experiments they are doing in the lab
  • challenge the individual student: the project should be adaptable to accommodate the level of the student; a weaker student can still achieve┬áthe goal while there is potential for more layers for an advanced student.

With these in mind, I go to contempt what I will have my first student do for her project.

Do you have any tips for designing undergraduate projects? I look forward to reading your comments below.