Is Research for Me?

How to get started in Undergraduate Research in the BSCD

One of the most distinctive features of the College is the opportunity for its students to participate in research at the forefront of biological and medical knowledge and to interact with the distinguished researchers that comprise the faculty there. This is a brief guide on how to become involved in biomedical research as a student in the College. Please bear in mind that its suggestions will not apply in every instance, and that you should not be reluctant to consult any faculty member if you encounter problems.

The Biological Sciences Division

As a student in the College, you are likely most familiar with those Biological Sciences faculty who teach undergraduates. These professors are but a subset of the biomedical faculty on campus -- many of whom are eager to involve College students in their research. Most of these faculty belong to the The Biological Sciences Division (BSD), the arm of the University responsible for training Ph.D.s in biological sciences. To access the full diversity of these professors, you need to look beyond the normal confines of the College.

Should I do research?

It depends. There are many reasons in favor of doing research. If you engage in research under the supervision of a faculty member, you will be taking advantage of one of the most distinctive features of the College. You will experience first-hand the process whereby new biological knowledge is discovered, something that cannot be appreciated through lectures or textbooks. If you are contemplating a profession that involves research, you will have an opportunity to discover how much you like the process. Finally, although it may not seem like this while doing minipreps at 2 AM in the morning or while slogging through mud and rain on the way to a field site, research is fun and rewarding. However, research is time-consuming! The exact time commitment will vary from laboratory to laboratory, but is usually more than you think. Thus, if you really need every spare moment to complete your regular coursework, if you have substantial obligations to extracurricular activities or employment, or even if you just prefer free time, think carefully about what you're getting into. Research sponsors are willing to invest substantial effort and resources in you, but expect your effort in return. Thus, be fair to yourself and to prospective sponsors. Carefully estimate the amount of effort (i.e., hours per week) that you are willing to invest, and carefully consider the impact of this estimate on the rest of your life. Research can be wonderful, but only if you have the time to experience it without becoming miserable. If you honestly believe that cannot devote substantial time to research, maybe it isn't for you.

When should I do research?

Again, it depends, in this case largely upon how much time you can commit and how much academic preparation is necessary. If you can do research for only a few hours per week and the project is relatively unsophisticated, any time during your 4 years here will be fine. At the other extreme, if you are contemplating a sophisticated and demanding project, you may want to wait until you have completed some advanced coursework and can make a full-time commitment; e.g., during the summer between 3rd and 4th year. Where you fall between these extremes is a function of the particular research project you choose. Here is an illustration of a typical schedule for a BioSci concentrator towards the "more intense" side of this continuum.

Year 1-2: BioSci Introductory Sequence This gives you an opportunity to survey the entirety of the biological sciences and figure out what research topics interest you the most.

Year 3, Autumn Quarter: Begin advanced coursework in area of greatest interest. Narrow down interests and identify prospective faculty supervisors. Meet with prospective faculty supervisors and decide which is most suitable for you and willing to take you on.

Year 3, Winter Quarter: Develop a research proposal by meeting with the faculty supervisor, library research, etc. This can be done under the guise of a reading course (e.g., BioSci 297) or without corresponding course credit. Towards the end of this quarter, submit a proposal to the competition for summer funding.

Year 3, Spring Quarter: Begin to work out the techniques you will be using and do pilot experiments. Continue to meet with faculty supervisor and conduct library research on your topic of interest. This can be done under the guise of a course (e.g.BioSci 299, Independent Research) or without corresponding course credit.

Summer between Year 3 and Year 4: Full-time research in the laboratory of your faculty sponsor. This can be done under the guise of a course (e.g., BioSci 199, Supervised Research; BioSci 299, Independent Research) or without corresponding course credit.

Year 4, Autumn Quarter through middle of Winter Quarter: Continue research part-time. Finish up unresolved work. This can be done under the guise of a course (e.g., BioSci 299, Independent Research) or without corresponding course credit.

Year 4, middle of Winter Quarter - Spring Quarter: Conclude research. If your research results are to be published, draft a manuscript. If your research results are relevant to graduating with Honors, prepare your Honors paper and poster; this is ordinarily done under the guise of a course, BioSci 298.

This "typical schedule" will obviously not apply in every case. Some students cannot work full-time during the summer, some supervisors will prefer you to work during term-time, some field projects can only be done at a particular time of year, some faculty will assign ready-made and already-funded projects rather than have you develop your own as outlined above, and some students are ready to begin research during the summer between Year 1 and Year 2. The KEY DATE, if you want to apply for summer funding, is late in the preceding Winter Quarter (typically March 1), when proposals are due. If you want to submit a proposal, you need to begin work on the proposal in advance of the due date, which means you have to discuss the proposal with your supervisor in advance, which means you have to find a supervisor even more in advance, which means you need to identify an area of interest even more in advance, and so on.

Other ways to participate

Some students want to experience research but cannot undertake the full program outlined above. Alternative ways to participate in research are to volunteer to work in a laboratory. This may be a "foot in the door" that leads to a paid position or opportunity to do a real project. If you need to work, it is often possible to take a job in a laboratory. Also, some students work in several labs before they decide which one they will do an honors project in (or apply for a summer fellowship in).

How should I identify a faculty supervisor?

First, how NOT to identify a faculty supervisor. Going to a professor and saying "I want to do research. Can you recommend a supervisor?" is a lot like going into a large department store and asking the first salesperson you meet: "I want to buy something; can you tell me what I should buy?" This is frustrating for all concerned. BEFORE you speak with a faculty member, narrow down your interests and then prepare to consult faculty members in this area of interest.

Second, realize that faculty members are people too. In any population you will encounter individuals who are eager to help you and those who couldn't care less about you. The population of faculty is no different. If you encounter someone whose behavior you do not appreciate, do not become discouraged. Not only are faculty people, they are busy people, often with more to do than they can possibly accomplish. Even those who are eager to help you and really want you to work in their labs may be unable to meet with you immediately.

Thus, plan ahead. Call or email for an appointment, and ask when it would be convenient to meet. Here, then, are some steps you can follow to identify a faculty supervisor:

1. Narrow down your interest. Think about all the biology you've learned to date, and try to identify the topic or topics that interest you the most. Be as specific as you can. For example, if you are interested in genetics, is it population genetics or Mendelian genetics or molecular genetics? Prokaryotic or eukaryotic? Structure of genes, or regulation of gene expression? Transcriptional, translational, post-translational? It may be that you narrow your interest so far that no one at the University of Chicago is capable of supervising you. Even in that case, however, faculty advisors can often identify prospective supervisors who will somewhat share your interests. It is much easier to advise such students than to advise students whose interests are too undefined.

2. Find out about faculty with interests in your area. [Note: At this point it is NOT recommended that you consult the CROP Directory, for reasons that are outlined below.] 
This can be done in several ways: 

A. Use the World Wide Web. Web pages, however, are in a constant state of flux. This one, entitled Biological Sciences Division appears to point to each department's preferred home page, but will only be as current as the last time it was updated.

B. Telephone Departments/Committees/Programs whose names sound appropriate. These are listed under "Biological Sciences Division" in the University directory. Some editions of the College's "Courses and Programs of Study" and the "Course and Time Schedule" from the Registrar may also have listings, and sometimes even a particular person who is designated to handle inquiries. At any rate, phone them, ask for a description of the research interests of the faculty, and ask them if any faculty member is designated to handle inquiries about undergraduate research.

C. Consult faculty members whom you know. The Senior Honors Program Advisor, Dr. Deborah Nelson, can be consulted, but so can any other faculty member. The faculty is large, however, and no one person knows about all of the interesting research underway.

D. Consult more senior College students.

E. Bound collections of past honors thesis (previously "Honors Papers") are in Crerar Library on Reserve, call number QH1. H66. Check these out.

F. The CROP Directory. As you probably already know, the College Research Opportunities Program maintains a listing of paid and unpaid research opportunities. There are several problems with this listing. First, not all BSD faculty know about it and/or remember to list research opportunities there. Second, it does not contain enough information to enable you to decide whether a faculty member's research really matches your interests. Third, because it lists only a subset of research opportunities, competition for these can be intense. Thus, consult it by all means, but do not restrict your thinking to the faculty listed in the CROP Directory.

3. Approach prospective research sponsors. The foregoing steps should allow you to identify one or a small number of faculty members who might sponsor your research. Having done so, you need to convince them to take you on. Faculty sponsors will vary greatly in their willingness to take on students. Some will require that you have worked in their laboratory on menial chores before undertaking research. Some will have been overwhelmed with large numbers of students who want to work in their laboratory. Some will only consider people who are willing to make a certain time commitment upfront, who have taken certain courses, or are already trained in certain techniques. Some will happily accommodate practically anyone who wants to work in their labs.

Unless your prospective faculty member of choice falls into the last category, here are some ways of improving your chances. 

A. Do well in your coursework. Faculty value good students who want to work in their labs.
B. Prepare a brief (one page) resume of your prior coursework, grades, experience, and how to get in touch with you. Be certain it is neat and free of errors, for many prospective sponsors will infer your ability to conduct error-free research from the materials you show them.
C. Find out about the work of the prospective sponsor. Often, web pages and other information on faculty research will include a few references to representative publications. Check these out. Faculty members will be impressed if you tell them: "I read your recent paper in Cell and would be very interested in becoming involved in research along these lines" or "I read your paper in Evolution and wondered if you'd ever thought about investigating....". If you have no idea about a prospective sponsor's recent publications, you can find out about them using online resources such as those found at John Crerar Library.
D. When you are ready, approach the prospective sponsor. Phone or email in advance to make an appointment. Be on time for the appointment. If you are delayed or cannot keep the appointment, immediately phone or email. Remember that many prospective sponsors will infer your ability to act responsibly and punctually from your interview with them.

The faculty members with whom you meet will be trying to decide if they should accept you in their labs, and you will be trying to decide if you wish to do so if an offer is forthcoming. Often they will discuss potential projects that might be suitable. It is reasonable for you to present any ideas you have; even if your ideas are naive and/or impractical, they will help the faculty members gauge your interest and ability. You may want to discuss the faculty member's style of directing research. Some individuals provide a great deal of direction and supervision which is especially useful when working in a complicated area with which you are just getting familiar but some students may find restrictive. Other supervisors give you a great deal of freedom, nice when you work well in that setting but potentially frustrating if you don't. You may also wish to discuss the faculty members' expectations of the effort you will expend in the lab, whether the sponsor expects you to complete any coursework or reading before beginning research, whether you are likely to be able to submit a proposal for summer funding, etc.

You can ask with whom in the lab you'd actually be working on a day-to-day basis. This person may be a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow rather than the faculty supervisor. This should not in itself be automatically disheartening, as it is often possible to learn as much (if not more) from such individuals as the faculty member in charge. However, you may then wish to talk to the person with whom you'll be working to ensure that you are compatible.

Some BSD faculty members, particularly those remote from the College, may be unfamiliar with the normal progression of undergraduate research and what their responsibility to you will be if they accept you in their lab. In that case, you should refer them to the Senior Honors Program Advisor, Dr. Deborah Nelson.

The person with whom you interview may accept you on the spot, reject you on the spot, or request time to reach a decision. You have the same options; even if a faculty member offers you a position, you are within your rights to tell the faculty member that you have made appointments with other prospective sponsors and that you need to talk to them before reaching a decision. Of course, the faculty member then has the option of offering the position to someone else while you are making up your mind. Life can be complicated! One thing you can do to help you decide about an individual is to seek advice from others (advisors, fellow students, faculty, graduate students, post-docs) to learn about the research environment. You can ask to attend some of the regular meetings that most research groups have to get more of an insider's view of how that group works.

Other issues

Although doing research need not be synonymous with graduating with Special Honors, many students may wish to consider becoming involved in the Biology Honors Program. Graduation with Special Honors requires a minimum grade point average and usually entails participating in several courses and activities. Visit the page on the Biology Honors Program to find out more about these and to view another perspective on undergraduate research.