If you’ve ever been on a campus tour of Wesleyan, chances are that when your tour group stopped at Exley Science Center, your guide made sure to tell you that, due to the small number of graduate students at Wesleyan, undergraduates have a level of access to lab research that students at most other universities don’t experience until they’re graduate students themselves.
The process of becoming involved in a lab on campus can be daunting at times; it can be hard to know where to start. For some students, like David Vizgan ’21, a positive experience in an introductory course can spark an interest that leads them to seek STEM experiences outside of the classroom.
When he enrolled in Professor Meredith Hughes’ “Introduction to Astrophysics” class, Vizgan said he was still deciding on his major—his schedule was comprised mostly of humanities courses. He enjoyed the class so much he reached out to Hughes and asked to be considered for any research positions in her lab that might open up. When Hughes offered Vizgan a summer position, Vizgan readily accepted.
“That summer, I worked on a project which involved modeling a debris disk to measure the mass of a brown dwarf inside the disk,” Vizgan said in an email to The Argus. “I never finished that project, or got close to finishing it, because I did not know how to code, and so I made very little progress. But it gave me a taste of what it was like and I ended up really enjoying it as well as the company of everyone in the Astronomy Department.”
The experience helped Vizgan decide to major in astronomy, in addition to physics. Vizgan is still in Hughes’ research group, the “Disk Detectives.” For many students, exposure to research helps them to decide if it’s something they’d like to pursue as a career.
“For science in particular, what you learn in the classroom is not really what you do in practice,” said Ishita Mukerji, a professor in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department and Director of the College of Integrative Sciences. “Being able to work on projects in the lab gives students a much better idea of what it means to be a scientist and to do research science. Anyone who’s thinking of that as a career really needs to get into a lab and find out what that is because it’s not for everyone.”
Associate Professor Brian Hale Northrop of the Chemistry Department also pointed out the fact that research differs from exams in chemistry courses where students work to get one “right” answer.
“Research helps you realize that there’s a lot of unanswered questions, and gives you the tools to try and figure out: How do I approach answering something that people don’t know yet?” Northrop said. “Whether you go into chemistry [or not], coming up with that process of trying to solve problems should be helpful.”
Because the experience of doing research is unlike that of learning in a classroom, the different environments are often appealing to different types of students.
“Most of the students who are stars in the classroom are not stars in the lab because there’s this kind of craft element to it, working with your hands and having diligence and patience and the motivation of getting confronted with a challenge and wanting to overcome it,” said Professor of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Scott Holmes. “Some students get in there and say, ‘I didn’t sign up for this, I don’t want to do this,’ and some students love it.”
Discovering whether or not they enjoy research is often an integral step in undergraduates’ lives as they consider what they want to do after they graduate.
“I’m interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, so getting research exposure was really important to me,” said Saakshi Kakar ’20, a student in Assistant Professor of Psychology H. Shellae Versey’s Critical Health and Social Ecology Lab. “Ph.D.s are five to seven years of lots of research, so you should know if you like it. If nothing else, it gives you a way of understanding and appreciating the field that you’re interested in.”
Professors are aware that many of their students are considering or even preparing for graduate school and beyond. In addition to writing letters of recommendation for students they work with, they also sometimes tailor lab meetings to assist students considering further study.
“A lot of us are applying to graduate school, so our last lab meeting was tips for applying to graduate school and us all talking about our future career goals,” said Katie Vasquez ’20, a student in Professor of Psychology Hilary Barth’s cognitive development lab, which studies decision-making in children.
Professors said that undergraduate students take an unconventional approach to labs because they often lack the techniques and skills that graduate students have already developed. But since they haven’t been steeped in science literature, they often approach problems and ask questions in a different way that can benefit labs. As they learn skills and are shaped by the primary instructors that head the labs, they contribute even more. By the time they’re seniors, students working on theses may be performing work essentially at a graduate student level.
“The first paper that my group published since [I came] to Wesleyan was actually the senior thesis of one of my first undergrads, which was exciting,” Northrop said. “I had two grad students in the lab at the time, but there was an undergrad who came in and published their thesis before they had their projects working.”
Professor Amy MacQueen of the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry Department explained that undergraduates can be really helpful when it comes to projects that upper-level lab members might consider too risky to devote time to.
“Developing scientists at the undergraduate stage are often less constrained by ‘pressure to publish’, and therefore potentially have a greater willingness/motivation to embark on projects that have a high risk of failure (but also high potential payoff),” she wrote in an email to The Argus.
For example, two undergraduate students in her lab engineered yeast cells to produce a specific variant of the Zip1 protein found in an ancient ancestor of yeast, instead of the typical Zip1 that the cells usually make.
“We anticipated that this experiment would fail because we expected that the ancestral Zip1 protein would be unable to function at all in our budding yeast cells,” MacQueen wrote.
But the students obtained results that disproved the lab’s initial hypothesis and provided evidence for the role of the Zip1 protein in chromosome segregation.
Although undergraduates play an important role in labs, undergrad and grad students aren’t at odds with one another; despite the differences in their backgrounds, they often work together in the lab, sometimes even on the same projects. Graduate students can also serve as a source of instruction and help for undergraduates.
“There’s this stereotype of the isolated scientist working all by themselves, but the fact is that the labs are probably about the most social place you could be,” Holmes said. “You get these Ph.D. students and these undergrads together and…their [projects] are overlapping, so there’s a lot of camaraderie and help.”
Most students recommend that anyone looking to get involved with a lab should begin by finding a professor whose interests match their own, either on department websites or through a class.
As Kakar noted, office hours can be a good place to start.
“Even if you don’t have a class with them, going to office hours I think is a thing we often neglect,” she said. “Office hours are open for every student, not just the professor’s students in a particular class.”
Many science departments also hold events that showcase research in the spring just before applications for summer research are due to help students find labs that interest them. Some departments, like Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, offer courses like the Research Frontiers course to acquaint students with the research labs are conducting on campus.
The College of Integrated Sciences (CIS) also actively works to help students get involved. CIS runs a summer program that allows students to conduct research at different universities in South Asia, providing students accepted into the program with funds to travel and a stipend.
CIS also hosts a Research-A-Palooza in the spring semester, where students from all of the research labs present a poster on what their lab is doing. The event also provides students with a questionnaire designed to help match their interests to a lab, in addition to hosting a student panel where students discuss how they’ve gotten involved in research.
Meera Joshi ’20 also recommends that students sit in on lab meetings.
“There are a lot of students that are kind of scared that if they go to one lab meeting they have to commit and stick to that lab,” said Joshi. “I definitely left a lab for my [current lab] and I don’t think there were any hard feelings between me and the professor, I even took a class with her afterwards…. I think [students should] definitely sit in on a bunch of lab meetings.”
Sophie Wazlowski can be reached at email@example.com.