Undergraduate Experience in a Research Lab

There are several ways that undergraduates can get experience working in a research laboratory:

1. WORK-STUDY. There are very few such opportunities available, but if you're eligible for work-study, contact Greg Homison,
greg@biology.columbia.edu or 854-0502, in 500 Fairchild, who will add your name to the list and let you know when something is available.

2. VOLUNTEER. Most students working in labs do so initially without pay. Positions like this are not "advertised" anywhere; it's up to you to go around and find a professor who could use some help.

First, look through your class schedule and decide how many hours per week you can work. Can you put in one hour each morning? Or do you have one free day when you can spend 5 hours straight in the lab? The times that you have available will help determine which projects you can work on. Keep in mind that you'll need to spend some time on homework, sleeping, and having fun; if you're taking 22 credits this semester, this is not the best time to add a commitment to lab work. Lab experience can make a good academic record look even better, but it won't "rescue" a poor academic record, so don't let the lab work come at the expense of your coursework.

Next, look through the descriptions of the research conducted by scientists at Columbia University in the Departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry (which includes labs in biochemistry) and Psychology (which includes labs in the neurosciences). These are all on campus, and easy to get to between classes. Many students work on the Health Sciences Campus, on 168th Street, which you can get to in about 15 minutes on the free shuttle bus (or on the 1/9 uptown subway or M4 bus). The bus leaves about once an hour, so this option is best for those who have several long blocks of time available, rather than just an hour or two between classes. Most students work in the basic science departments: Anatomy & Cell Biology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics, Genetics & Development, Neurobiology & Behavior, Microbiology, Pathology, Pharmacology, Physiology & Cellular Biophysics. Some professors in the clinical departments also have small labs. Read through some of these descriptions, and choose 5 or 6 scientists whose work sounds interesting. These descriptions are actually written for potential graduate students who are trying to decide which lab to work in, so don't be intimidated if you don't understand them. Still, you should be able to get some sense of the general area the scientist is working in, and the kinds of techniques that they use. Don't feel that you have to go to some "big name", established scientist. In most of these labs, which are very large, you won't be working directly with the lab head anyway, but will be assigned to work with a lab technician, graduate student, or postdoctoral fellow.

Once you identify a few potential mentors, you can find their email/phone numbers either on the web pages or in the directory (At the $ prompt, type in "lookup" followed by the name of the person, and and you'll get their address, email, phone.
For example:

$ lookup marie curie
(No, she's not listed, I just checked.)

Contact these scientists and say that you're an undergraduate student who would like to get some experience working in their lab. You'll either get:

A. No response. If no one answers the phone, it's best to call back later, rather than leaving a voice mail or email, which are easy to ignore when one is busy, as scientists generally are.

B. "No, sorry, I can't take any more students." There are many reasons why a scientist may not want you to work there. Firstly, there may already be a lot of people in that lab, and if everyone is crowded around the same equipment, no one will be able to work very efficiently. Secondly, you will be entering the lab as a novice and someone will have to train you in the techniques that you will use. If the other people in the lab are particularly busy this semester, they may not be able to give you the attention needed to train you. In any event, don't take it personally if you get several rejections. Just go through the list of scientists and choose the next 5 who sound interesting.

C. "Maybe. Come in and we'll talk." Make an appointment to meet the scientist. If the lab is uptown, check the shuttle bus schedule to see when it would be most convenient to schedule a meeting. Here are some things you can do to prepare for an interview:

1. Read the description of their research interests if they've put this on the web. This will probably be too technical for you to understand completely. Find the key terms in this description, look them up in the index of your biology textbook (e.g., Purves or Becker), and read the relevant sections of the text. The professors will not expect you to know about their own research, but they will expect that you remember a little basic biology.

2. Put together a description of your background. This doesn't have to be as formal as a resume, but it will be helpful if you can bring a page that lists: your name, address, email, phone #, science courses (including math and computer sciences) you've taken or are currently taking (and the grades, if they're good; omit them, if they're not), any lab experience you've had, computer skills, career goals, other noteworthy experience. This can be useful both as a conversation starter, and as something for the professor to keep on file, in case it is not possible to make a place for you in the lab right away. Also, bring a timetable that shows your class schedule, so the professor can see the times that you'll be available.

3. The scientist will probably ask whether you've worked in a lab before, and if so, what you did. If you have some lab experience from high school, you should review beforehand in your own mind what you did, so that you'll be able to give a coherent, concise, 3-4 minute description of the purpose of the experiment, the techniques you used, your interpretation of the results.

4. Dress nicely, but casually. This is not a business interview, and you don't want to give the impression that you're so concerned about your three-piece suit or your three-shade nailpolish that you won't be willing to get your hands dirty at the lab bench.

The interview is not a cross-examination, but simply an informal conversation to help the scientist decide whether you seem eager and able to learn, whether you'll get along with the others in the labs, whether your schedule makes it possible to work on a particular project. At the same time, you should be thinking about whether you'd like to work in this particular lab. Most students are very satisfied with whichever lab they work in, but if you feel uncomfortable at the interview (everyone in the lab looks unhappy, the scientist doesn't seem able to explain things in a way that you can understand), you may want to try a different lab.

The type of work you'll be offered will depend in part on how much time you have available. Many students start out by working 5-10 hours/week, doing routine maintenance: feeding animals, ordering supplies, making up solutions, preparing equipment for experiments, and helping other lab workers in their experiments. After getting some experience, students may be given independent projects to work on, but many such projects require a larger time commitment (10-15 hours/week).

3. WORKING FOR CREDIT - Students can get academic credit for working in a lab, by registering for BIOL C3500, Independent Research. You're expected to spend about 3 hours in the lab for each credit, and most students register for 3 credits and work about 10 hours/week. You still have to find a lab to work in, as described under VOLUNTEER. The only difference is that you must make it clear to the scientist that you are looking for a lab to work in for academic credit, and that you will be expected to work on an independent research project for about 10 hours/week. You can either take this course pass/fail, or for a letter grade. The latter requires you to write a research paper at the end of the semester. (See C3500 requirements.)
While it's nice to be able to get credit for your lab experience, keep in mind that this means that you're making a commitment to work there for the entire semester. If you're not sure that you want to make this commitment, you may want to volunteer in a lab for one semester first, and then ask the head of the lab if you can continue to work there for credit.

4. GETTING PAID - Some scientists are able to pay for student hourly help from their research grants. This generally happens after the student has some experience in that particular lab.

5. SUMMER RESEARCH - There are many more opportunities to work in a lab during the summer, when you can devote full-time to research. The Department of Biological Sciences sponsors a SURF program, which provides a $4000 stipend (in 07') for students to spend ten weeks on an independent research project during the summer. Over 150 students applied in 06', and 55 of them were accepted.

Applications for this program will be available in the beginning of the spring semester. To get an idea what the program is like, plan to come to the next SURF Symposium (the date of the next Symposium will be announced each fall) where last year's SURF students will discuss the research that they did.

There are many other institutions that offer similar programs. As we get information on their programs for the summer, we'll post these on the Other summer internships page.

For specific questions about C3500, contact Dr. Ron Prwyes at mrp6@columbia.edu or Dr. Mowshowitz at dbm2@columbia.edu .

For general questions about undergraduate lab research, and comments or suggestions for this page, contact Dr. Judith Gibber at ah2289@columbia.edu .

This page written by Dr. Judith Gibber. Updated 07/02/2004 by D. Mowshowitz.