The University frequently boasts of its countless undergraduate research opportunities, both in the sciences and other disciplines. Without a large graduate student population (unlike many larger research institutions), professors turn to undergraduate students to help them in their labs.
Kati Young ’19 describes the University’s research opportunities as a sort of “Goldilocks” opportunity.
“We have enough graduate students where you really have that support and ongoing research, but there’s so many open spots for undergraduates to really commit to research,” Young said.
New research is currently in the works at the University, with the help of many undergraduate students. The Argus spoke with one of those students conducting research in a lab on campus.
Hannah Xu ’20, a Neuroscience & Behavior and Psychology double major, works in the Robinson Lab. The Robinson Lab uses rats as models to investigate the behavioral neuroscience behind motivation, reward, and addiction. And like most undergraduate students in labs, Xu has an independent research project.
“My current project involves optogenetic stimulation of the central amygdala to observe addictive-like preferences within rats,” Xu explained. “I am running these rats in a decision-making task and the data will be presented later this year at the Society for Neuroscience annual conference.”
Xu recognized Wesleyan’s ample research opportunities even before coming to the University.
“One of the most crucial characteristics I was looking for in a college was undergraduate research,” she said. “The fact that Wes was and still is so dense with independent research opportunities for students is just one of the facets that makes this place incredible.”
Working in a lab can be a large time commitment—Xu spends about 11-14 hours in a lab each week. But the hard work pays off.
“Research has been one of the most intellectually valuable experiences for me as a student,” Xu remarked.
Not to mention, some departments offer students the opportunity to conduct independent research for course credit. Additionally, undergraduate research can result in inspiration for senior theses.
Young, a triple major in Molecular Biology & Biochemistry, College of Integrative Sciences, and Science in Society, is currently working on a thesis that builds off of the research she’s doing in the MacQueen Lab. The MacQueen lab focuses on understanding the mechanisms behind meiosis in budding yeast. Young’s thesis, tentatively entitled “Testing the Lahiri-Mukerji Model’s Msh4 Putative DNA Binding Site in Vivo,” applies the findings of a University biophysics lab to the model organism of budding yeast in the MacQueen lab.
Young also spoke about her love for the work she does in the lab, the things she learns about research, and the things she learns about herself from her research.
“For me, learning science in the classroom and researching in a lab are two very different domains,” she said. “Researching in a lab is helping me learn if I like the hands-on discovery part of science as opposed to just learning science from a textbook…. It’s fundamentally different. One of the things I thought as I was deciding whether or not I should do a thesis or not is [that] doing undergraduate research is one of the safest places to fail. I think that doing a thesis here is a really good marker for me to know if I want to look for lab jobs in the future, if I ever want to apply for grad school. All of that is super related to this.”
But the question stands: How can underclassmen interested in research get involved?
“I suggest anyone who is interested in pursuing research to start preparing early—take the course that the professor whose lab you are interested in teaches, look through their publications, and express interest in person,” Xu recommended. “There are also various ‘Undergraduate Research’ luncheons and fairs held throughout the year, which will detail different labs on campus and their current projects.”
Young took a similar approach when looking for lab opportunities.
“When I was a sophomore, I took a class called Advanced Genetics taught by Professor MacQueen,” Young explained. “I went to office hours and we got off-topic into talking about the research she does in her lab and I just showed a lot of interest. [My advice is to] show continued/sustained demonstrated interest.”
Additionally, the NSM Coalition (a union of science-related student affinity groups such as WesWis, WesMaSS, SUSS, and McNair undergraduate students) has put together a guide of labs looking for undergraduate researchers.
Although both Xu and Young were sure they wanted to do research before coming to campus, they emphasized that it is not necessary to come in knowing that.
“Take advantage of the resources here on campus and don’t be hesitant to try out different labs through shadowing opportunities,” Xu stressed.
Young offered similar advice.
“If you’re questioning it, give research a try. It’s an experience you won’t regret having.”
Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.