Students interested in research

(Parts of this memo may not be relevant to your particular circumstances.) While the memo focuses on research during the semester as the bio 200/500 'research for credit' course, much of it is relevant for applying for an HHMI/WU Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship or for summer jobs.

 Begin by looking at our web site <>

 On the website, read "Purpose of Course", "Description and Expectations", "How to Find a Mentor". Within the latter, follow the link to "List of Mentors". More mentors than are listed might be available. Ask at the Reserve Desk at the library for "The Research Interest Book" (RIB). The RIB is accessible through a link in the section "How to find a mentor". But it is not very useful there until you have a list of names of professor's whose work interests you or have otherwise narrowed your interests. (go to 'strategy for finding a mentor' link).

 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."

 At the 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 his/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 a question like: "How would you make 100 ml solution of 0.1 M NaCl?"

 To facilitate getting your project off the ground, be certain that you leave (at least) two big blocks of time in your schedule. You are 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.  Be sure to discuss your schedule for work and ask who you will be learning from.  You want to make sure the person teaching you is willing to do so.  See ‘strategy for finding a mentor’ for details

Natural Sciences Learning Center
Washington University - Biology
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