Summary of strategies for finding a mentor for research:

For a paid job in research or HHMI/WU SURF or paid summer/academic year (WS) jobs: much of the information about Bio 200/500 and research during the semester applies, except the specifics regarding registration for credit.

There are two important strategies: (1) identifying particular labs/mentors whose work seems interesting to you and approaching them directly (see also job listings on our undergraduate research web site, bottom) and (2) sending information to Frances Thuet in the format specified on the website, help in finding a summer job:

Frances will post an 'ad' on the students looking for work' web site:

We direct faculty to this site if they are looking for student workers. Also, look at job postings on our ‘jobs section’ (at the bottom of the page) undergraduate research web site:

Labs looking for full and part time help often post ads here.  

BOTH strategies [posting a ‘job wanted ad’ and contacting faculty directly] can be used simultaneously.  Do not rely solely on a ‘job wanted ad.’   Researchers often respond better to a personal contact of someone who is genuinely interested and motivated enough to have done some reading up on lab research interests.

To generate a list of faculty to contact, you should focus on areas of biology and/or medicine that seem interesting to you – from course work or other exposure.  You can scan the Bio 200/500 mentors list for a brief overview of research areas of many faculty who have or are willing to be mentors.  After finding some names, you can use the Research Interests Book (RIB) to get more information about those potential mentors and/or visit each faculty member’s web page.

The purpose of the DBBS faculty website is to give brief summaries of the research interests of the many (>350) researchers [at Hilltop and the Medical school] that are part of the ‘Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.’

For example, if you are interested in genetics, you might first look at faculty in the Molecular Genetics Program [faculty are listed by program at the front of the book], or search the "The Research Interest Book" (RIB) on line with the key word ‘genetics.’   This online resource is not very useful until you have a list of names of professor's whose work interests you, you have a field of biology (cell biology, genetics, developmental biology, etc) in which you know you are interested, or you know the search terms available (these are the terms listed in the index of the RIB). 

Some of those whose research is described in the RIB or who are faculty members in departments on the Hilltop or Medical campus, while not listed on our mentors list, might be quite willing to serve as mentor to an undergraduate student. And some mentors on our list are not in the RIB.  Don't hesitate to ask someone whose research interests you – whether they are in the RIB or on the mentors page or not.  The worst that can happen is they say no.  Do note however, that some clinically-oriented research is not appropriate for Bio 500, but others mechanism, like Biology 365 might be appropriate to obtain credit. 

Try to find several faculty members (3-7) whose work seems interesting to you.  Send an email to each faculty member asking for an appointment.  In this letter, say WHY YOU PICKED THEIR NAMES/AREA OF RESEARCH and what specifically interests you about this area [i.e., liked this topic in intro course, have always had an interest in topic due to family history or personal experience, etc.], Explain BRIEFLY your main goals for the research experience and possible future plans for career, say where you are in school, what relevant courses you have taken.  If you have done well, don't hesitate to say so.  Describe BRIEFLY any prior research experience and what techniques you have mastered (as PCR, Western blotting, etc).  Do not worry if you have had no experience.  You were not born knowing how to do research.  This is an opportunity for you to learn techniques, experimental design and other elements of doing research.  Your note should be short but should highlight your interests and any of your qualifications.

If you need a paying job, especially if you are a first or second year student, say so. If you are eligible for work-study mention that. Include a phrase like: "While I will be happy to start by performing routine chores, my hope is that I will also be able to work my way into participation in research."

Wait a week or so for replies.  If none are forthcoming, try once more with these same faculty, indicating that you are resending a previous inquiry.  If after two tries you do not get a positive response, determine if there are some additional people whose work interests you and contact them. 

Preparing for an interview:

IMPORTANT: If you have worked in a lab before, you will almost certainly be asked about it. You should be prepared to say what you did and especially WHY you did it. You should be prepared to describe in a few sentences how the work you did fits into a larger biological context.

Before you go to talk with a potential mentor, try reading one of her papers listed in the RIB. You will not understand everything, but you should be prepared to ask a question or two about its content. Also be prepared to answer the question: "How would you go about making 100 ml solution of 0.1 M NaCl?"

At your interview, be certain to ask with whom you will be working with on an every day basis.  In most labs you will most likely begin by learning from one or several lab members (technicians, post-docs and grad students).  You will need to learn some basic methods and skills and be introduced to the project goals and strategies.  It is common to have a ‘lab’ or ‘bench’ mentor with whom you will work on a daily basis.  Arrange to talk with that person before accepting any offered position.  I advise you to have the following conversation. "Dr. X has said she would be glad to have me do research in the lab, but my question for you is: Will you be glad to be responsible for an undergraduate? For my part, while I do not know much now, I am reliable and eager to become involved. But, if for any reason, you would rather not have an undergraduate, please let me know so that I can find another lab. I do not want to be in the position where I am a pain in the neck." If you are hesitant about having this conversation, say that I said you should have it.

Practical considerations for a successful experience:

Be certain that you leave two big blocks of time in your schedule. You will be expected to spend 10-12 hrs/wk in the lab for 3 units of credit. 2 days x 6 hrs/day is far preferable to 6 days x 2 hrs/day.

The amount you can do during the semester is limited by the demands of your courses. Guard against spending too much time in the lab. It is a considerable temptation, if things are going well, to find it more agreeable to be in the lab than studying for some course that you are not enthralled with. Resist the temptation.  In general, limit yourself to 10-12 hrs/wk. Summers provide a much better opportunity to accomplish a lot.  Arrange to have no other obligations so you can devote yourself fully to the work.  You will end up spending far more than 40 hrs/wk the way your mentor does.  While there are Fellowships available in the summer, the competition to obtain one is stiff and you can only get it once.  So, if you want to spend summers doing research, and I encourage you to do so, be certain to tell you mentor at the first interview.  You might say something like this. "Assuming things go well from both your and my point of view, I would like to work full time in the summer(s). I will apply for a Fellowship, but Prof. Miller tells me they are competitive and that a student gets it for only one summer. Will you be able to support me with grant money if I do not have a Fellowship?" If the answer is "No", then feel free to say that I advised you to check with other potential mentors since working full time in the summer is such an important part of the research experience.

Initially, you will interact mostly with your lab mentor.  You will be learning techniques and discovering how the research questions are addressed.  This requires an investment of your time and energy and ALSO THE TIME, ENERGY, and RESOURCES [grant money] of the lab.  Usually the pay off for both the lab and you comes after several semesters, when you begin to function more independently and interact with others in the research setting as an equal.  As your project progresses you will interact not only with your ‘lab mentor,’ but other researchers in the lab [and in other labs with similar interests] and the lab head (PI = principle investigator).  Do not be discouraged if, at first, you do not spend a lot of time working directly with the PI. 

If you have questions beyond what is on or what I have said above, please make an appointment to see me. I will be glad to help.

Professor Kenneth Olsen