Excel at an undergrad research experience

For many of you undergraduates, a summer research experience may be your first time in a biomedical lab at a research-intensive institution. For most it is likely your first time in a new lab. Getting started in a new environment and only being there for 8-10 weeks means learning and accomplishing a lot in a short period of time. Here, I outline tips for how to have a successful summer.

There are already some great articles on this topic, so check them out (http://www.asbmb.org/asbmbtoday/201505/Education/Tips/; http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2008/12/making-your-summer-research-internship-good-one).

Who is in charge and what will you be doing?

If you haven’t been in a research lab before, you may be confused about who is in charge of you. The head of the lab is often called the PI (principle investigator). This name comes from lab funding nomenclature where the person who receives a grant is known as the PI. While the lab head, or PI, may be directing your project topic, he or she will probably not supervise your daily work. Instead, you may be paired with a graduate student, postdoc, or research assistant, and your summer project may be a part of his or her larger project or the beginning of a new project for them. You may still have occasional meetings with the PI, but be sure that you seek your direct mentor for daily guidance and questions. If you are not paired with someone, don’t be afraid seek out one or two people in the lab who seem happy to provide advice.

Along these lines, while you should have a project that is your own over the summer, this typically is a side project in the lab. Your work could help propel this into a bigger project, so it goes without saying to be sure you work to do your best on the project! When you’re getting started it can be hard to fully understand your project and the experiments that you’ll be doing. However, don’t let this deter you from taking ownership. While you aren’t expected to fully understand your project up front, you should fight the mentality that you are simply a helping hand. Instead, take ownership and you will not only learn more, but you will stand out as a mature scientist. Your work can very likely contribute a figure or two to a paper from the lab, thus allowing you to gain authorship. This should in fact be your goal, so treat your work as such. Here are some tips for doing this:

General tips

Here are the boring tips to do the minimum of what is expected of you

  • Work hard. Don’t expect to only work 40 hours each week; some weeks may be less and some may be more. Ask to work on the weekends (but be sure someone will be there to help you, especially at the beginning of summer). Remember that science doesn’t always work on a M-F, 9-5 schedule.
  • Keep a good lab notebook. Others will be following your research. Make it easy on them and you. If you aren’t sure what to put in here, ask your direct mentor. Remember that the more detailed you are, the more likely that you or someone else will be able repeat your results.
  • Be excited about your project. You’ve been given this opportunity while others weren’t. Treat this as such! Also, the more you learn about a topic, the easier it is to see how your work will fit into the bigger picture. Therefore, it will be easier to get excited. This leads me to my next point.


At the beginning of your summer, you’ll probably find that there can be quite a bit of downtime. This is because you are learning new experiments slowly enough that you can absorb them.

  • Read textbooks. If you don’t have one, ask for a textbook that covers the basics of what you are studying. Start with the pertinent chapter to get a simple, broad perspective of your work.
  • Read review articles. Ask your lab mentor for some relevant review articles. A really fantastic review article can give you exactly what you need to best understand your project. These reviews can also point you to some really important primary literature in the citations, and they are often an excellent starting point.
  • Read primary literature. You may hear suggestions contrary to this, but for an undergraduate summer project, I would advise you against finding your own primary literature, at least at the beginning. This is because there could be thousands of relevant articles and you simply can’t read them all, and you might get lost in what can be an overwhelming amount of reading material. Instead, ask your mentor for suggestions. Start with 4-5 (this could take you a whole week to read these to understand them). While reading them, it is essential that you fully understand what is being said by the author. This is not your typical college-level reading. One paper is likely to take several hours to understand, and rest-assured that it gets easier as you read more. When you come across an experiment, Google what the experiment is; don’t just understand the conclusions—understand the experiments that lead to the conclusions. When you’re done with each paper, ask your supervisor questions you had, ask how it fits with your project, and ask for more articles.
  • You will likely have experimental issues while doing your work. Ask your supervisor for their input, but also look for some solutions yourself. There are great websites that provide insights from other biologists (bitesize bio, researchgate, stackexchange), and simply Googling your question might provide some great help.

Talk to other lab members

It can be intimidating to get started in a lab full of experts in the field, but don’t let this keep you from engaging with others.

  • Branch out and ask your lab mates about how they became interested in research. You may learn that everyone has their own reasons and path to their position. Try to figure out what path they are on—they will likely give some good input as you also consider career options.
  • Ask them about their project. Ask for a schedule for lab meetings, and meet with each person the week before they present (note, be courteous with their time, as they are probably busy preparing for a presentation that week). Ask questions about things you don’t understand (you will likely not understand a lot, but asking will help you get there), and ask them how their project relates to yours. Not only will you learn more about the work in the lab, but you may also learn more about your project and how it relates to the big picture of the lab.

Listen and take notes

You may think you’ll remember everything you’re told but you won’t. You’ll have meetings with the lab PI, with your supervisor, with other members of the lab, and potentially seminars. There is a lot of input, and there will be times you wish you had written something down.

  • Take notes on the project as you discuss it with the PI and mentor. However, don’t replace thoughtful listening with feverish note-taking. It would be better to listen fully, making bullet point notes and filling in details later. Try to fill in details immediately after your meeting; however, don’t be afraid to go back and clarify something you realize you don’t understand.
  • Take notes on papers as you read them. You may be used to highlighting things that you don’t know in textbooks. Don’t plan to do this with research articles or your whole article will be marked up! Instead, make notes on the big picture of the article and any details that specifically relate to your project. Also, take notes on the questions that arise as you read the article. You can also write a quick summary of each paper to refer to later on.
  • Take notes on the experiments you do, not only as you are told how to do them, but as you work through the steps yourself so you can do it yourself the second time with minimal assistance.
  • Take notes on the location of reagents, not only to know where to get them next time, but to be sure to put them back in the right place. Along these lines, take notes on storage details of reagents (i.e. enzymes should be left on ice, chemical X is resuspended in DMSO). Finally, if you make a new stock of a chemical or reagent, note how much you weighed out and the volume you resuspended in. This will help you determine if you made a calculation error later.
  • Take notes during lab meeting and if you attend a seminar. During each seminar, try to come up with at least one question for the speaker. This can keep you listening during the whole presentation, even when tempted to tune out after a while. During lab meeting, you might not feel comfortable asking questions, so write them down and ask the speaker after the presentation.

Additional notes

As should be obvious, do not spend time on social media, and do not listen to music/TV/podcasts while you are at work. Even if your more-advanced co-workers are on Facebook or Twitter, do not follow that example. This will keep you from getting distracted and begin a good practice that will influence the rest of your career. During down time, you can either set up another experiment or read papers. Keep your headphones off. You might think you are multitasking by listening to a podcast while setting up a reaction, but you are more likely getting distracted and making mistakes. Furthermore, you might also be missing out on important conversations among your peers. One of the best ways to learn is to overhear what others in the lab are talking about and ask questions; don’t miss this excellent opportunity! It is better to learn the right way to spend your time early on.

As if I haven’t given you enough tips, here is my last one. Science is full of failures that precede the successes. You may not be used to this from your academic work. Try not to get frustrated if an experiment or even your whole project fails. Take it as a learning experience because that is exactly what it is. If you’ve put in the work, then the summer isn’t a failure!

Good luck! You can do it!

One thought on “Excel at an undergrad research experience

  1. Pingback: Tips for Summer Research – EpiTranscript

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