I spend a lot of time bragging about the 15 graduate students who’ve worked in my lab but this post is inspired by the 28 undergraduates I’ve had the good fortune to mentor in research. Within this group are veterinarians, medical doctors, wildlife biologists, research scientists, consultants, teachers, moms and dads, zookeepers, future grad students, ace field technicians, and the freest of free spirits. They are impressive people, and their journey with me began the day they gingered their swagger to contact me with a simple, but at the time for them, intimidating question: “Are there any opportunities to do an undergraduate research project with you?”
Our world, i.e., ecology/conservation/management of natural resources, is heavily data driven. Some of our students will go on to careers in research in which they will be the ones to collect, analyze, and interpret such data. Most will not, but they still need the ability to access and understand data. Any opportunity to practice that above and beyond what might be required for specific courses is a good thing. Students can do that and build those skills by helping others carry out their research or conducting their own. Both paths can be wonderful preparation for the next step in a student’s career.
Personally, I knew early on (like kindergarten) that I wanted to pursue a career in research, but I did not know exactly how to do that at the undergraduate level. I was barely passing my classes and working in the dining halls to pay my bills. In November of my junior year I was taking Mammalogy and, evidently, my enthusiasm was on display one afternoon in lab. My teaching assistant John Hayes (today Dean of the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University!) took notice and asked a simple question: “Why aren’t you working as a technician for one of our grad students?” I was floored. “You can do that?!” I truly had no idea.
Not long after, I was working as a field technician for the New York Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit in Cornell University’s Department of Natural Resources. They were paying me to conduct bird counts, mist-net birds, trap and mark voles, collect and identify native insects, seine fish, look for bugs in flying lemur poop, measure cattail leaves, and orchestrate a captive breeding program for New York State’s last three Allegheny woodrats. I never went back to dish machine operator in the dining halls. Two summers of honing skills I learned in labs (and many I hadn’t) gave me the boost I needed to compensate a bit for my lousy GPA. Someone took a chance on me for a master’s degree, and the rest is a bit of arcane history – culminating in my current position of being that person guiding undergraduates to their first experience experience.
So that’s the first lesson: Not only can you gain important experience working (and getting paid) as a technician on a graduate student’s project, we want you to do that. If we don’t have to engage in a national search to find good field technicians, we’d rather not. If for no other reason than that you already have an apartment here, it’s a lot easier for all parties when we can find quality technicians among our own undergrads. For your part though, you need to meet us halfway by developing the kind of skills we might be looking for. Often, field technicians will be 100% trained by the graduate student for the work they will do, so all you need to do to succeed on such a project is be open-minded and responsible and safety-conscious and no-drama easy-going with a desire to WORK no matter what hours, how hot, how bad the ticks are, etc. But just as often there are certain skills that we don’t have time for you to develop on the job, and if you don’t have them then I can’t use you. The best example in my lab is identifying birds by song and call. The basic data structure for most of our projects is go here and write down what birds are there. Can I essentially air-drop you someplace and have you identify something like 100 different songs and calls of the local birds? If yes, we’re in business. If no, then I need to look elsewhere.
That’s the second lesson: Identify the skills that would make you marketable and develop those as much as you can, on your own. There is an extraordinary amount of personal development you can do on your own time to advance your career in wildlife ecology. Usually this involves learning to identify things in nature: birds, herps, plants, insects. If you have these skills you will not go hungry. Other biggies include things you might take for granted: Can you back a trailer, drive a stickshift, operate an ATV, use a GPS, use a compass (for when the GPS battery dies), etc? Above all, do you have a safe driving record? These things really matter, and they’re largely things we cultivate on our time. I often tell students that every important opportunity I’ve had in my career boiled down to two things: I could write clearly and I could identify birds by song and call. I had mastered both of these things by high school, and the latter I did completely on my own.
So that’s helping other people do research; what about conducting your own?
I see two big categories of approaches to do that. The first is the smart way, at least from the professor’s perspective: You, the undergraduate student, join a lab to help a graduate student – much like I described above. In this case, however, the graduate student is one of several working on different pieces of some big system that is a focus for the professor’s lab. Maybe it’s something like a lab that studies “wetlands” and at any given time there are graduate students studying soils, plants, insects, birds, amphibians, etc. There are always samples to be collected and curated, data to be entered, etc. You are assigned to one of these pieces – and to one of the graduate students who ends up actually mentoring you, day-to-day. You end up carving out a little piece of the data and analysis for yourself that becomes your research project. Perhaps that is an extra chapter of the graduate student’s thesis, i.e., something they’d love to do but don’t have time to do themselves. This is a wonderful opportunity for all. You benefit from being part of a team and the work and wisdom of multiple people working out the details of your methods and analysis before you ever get started. You have a built-in mentor who is keenly motivated to see you succeed and, especially, to develop an analysis that can be published. The graduate student mentor gets to incorporate a aspect of their work that might otherwise fall by the wayside. You are networking and building collaborative relationships that can support you throughout your career.
The other category of undergraduate research is what I tend to do, not because I prefer it necessarily – I love the graduate student mentor model – but because I generally don’t have multiple students working on the same thing in a lab at any given time. My students tend to work on similar themes, but seldom on the same project. We don’t really collect things from nature to bring back to a physical lab for curation. We far more often return from the field with datasheets than we do with physical specimens (e.g., soil samples, insect collections) that need to be identified and curated. Increasingly, we’ve been skipping the field work part altogether: we’re downloading the data we use from existing programs like the North American Breeding Bird Survey or the PRISM Climate Group. This makes it a bit more challenging to carve out a piece of any one project for an undergraduate to do, and rarely do undergrads get excited about data-mining. They want to be outside collecting their own data!
That’s where I begin, then. Undergraduate: what do you know how to do? I work with each student to develop a unique project all their own. The topics are driven by what skills the student brings to the process, what is likely to be accomplished in the allotted time, and, ultimately, what the student would like to learn more about. The trade-off from not walking into an established system in which the student can be easily plugged is that the student is truly a partner with me in this research endeavor. I am mentoring of course, but the student is at least as much an intellectual leader in this process as I am. The student is fully involved in every aspect of the research, from day one. Compared to the graduate student mentor model, the “success” rate as defined by seeing the research through to publication tends to be lower, but I suspect that the personal growth in terms of truly understanding how research progresses from vague idea to finished product is higher. Again, that’s not to indicate a preference for one model over another; it’s just an artifact of the type of projects we tend to have in my lab.
Ultimately, my goal for you (and me!) is that some kind of publication is indeed a product of your undergraduate research. My approach with a new student researcher is to sort of reverse-engineer the project from that end goal.
How can we do that? It’s just a few simple steps, really:
- conduct literature search on the general topic that interests you
- read some more
- read stuff that might be relevant to your question even if it’s a vastly different system (e.g., read about predation by insects, fish, and plants even if you’re studying leopards)
- develop an annotated bibliography of the literature
- think – then zero in on the most specific hypothesis to test or knowledge gap to fill that will advance the science related to your question
- write a 3–5 paragraph essay to justify the hypothesis you propose to test (this is the Introduction)
- write a 5–7 paragraph description of what type of data you will collect, including from where, how much, and how you will analyze (this will be your Methods)
- use basic Introduction and Methods you have now written as a proposal to submit to potential scholarships and other funding sources
- apply for any permits you might need to collect and analyze the data you need
- get $$$ to do the work (celebrate!)
- collect, archive, and prepare data for analysis
- analyze data
- take time to digest the results of analysis and put in context of previous literature so we truly understand what we’ve got
- prepare poster presentation of research
- deliver poster presentation of research to societal or undergraduate research symposium
- conduct another literature search to find relevant papers published since you started the project
- prepare manuscript using feedback from poster presentation and incorporating new literature
- send manuscript to at least one other person you trust to provide constructive feedback
- format manuscript to journal specifications
- submit manuscript (celebrate again!)
I know that’s a lot of steps, but charting it out like this is a big part of success in research, i.e., developing a plan and sticking to it. For your part, you can start whenever you’re ready. Objective #1 will be to progress toward the bolded part about submitting a proposal. It’s the case here and I assume at just about any university that there is some kind of program to encourage undergraduate research through grants and scholarships. Scientific and professional societies also make small grants available for this kind of undergraduate development. This can specifically be money for supplies or travel to support the direct costs of doing the work, it can be money that goes straight to your pocket so that you don’t need another job while working on the research, it can fund your travel to a conference to deliver a presentation, etc.
If this sounds good to you then the easiest place to start is a search of published literature in Google Scholar. Let’s get started!