Mentoring undergraduates: all you need to know to help your summer student

Creative Commons image by Alex Shukoff, Nazareth College

This is another post in a series highlighting the collaboration between COMPASS and CBE—Life Sciences Education (LSE)–featuring some of the exciting work that is being done to understand how we learn about science and how science careers impact the people who work in both academia and industry.

Mentoring undergraduates in the lab is often the first opportunity for trainees to teach. Typically, it comes without the same amount of support and guidance as other teaching opportunities. Moreover, mentoring undergraduates usually happens at the same time as other commitments: carrying out experiments, troubleshooting assays, writing papers and proposals, submitting abstracts to conferences, rushing paper corrections, and so on. If you are embarking on an undergraduate mentoring adventure this summer, here are two key ideas and some practical tips that can help you be a better mentor, based on the solid research published in CBE—Life Sciences Education.

Ensure that your student interacts with your boss

Research has shown that undergraduate students who are directly involved with faculty members are more likely to become invested in their research and to consider enrolling in a STEM graduate program. What’s more, undergraduate students who spend more time with faculty members develop a stronger “scientific identity,” that is, they start to see themselves as scientists in the way that they approach both their work and their career choices. Scientific identity lends students confidence in the way they approach their experiments and in how they engage with other scientists, whether they are other undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, or faculty members. Interestingly, minority groups that tend to be less involved with faculty members (namely women and students of Asian descent) tend to be overall less interested in undertaking a career in research and report lower scientific identity. Therefore, by promoting direct interactions with your PI, you may be helping your undergraduate mentees overcome some of the cultural and societal biases they contend with on a daily basis.

You may be reading this and quietly snickering to yourself. It’s hard enough to get your PI’s attention for yourself, never mind fending for your undergraduate! Here are three simple ideas how you can help your student and PI work together, even when your PI literally does not have time.

  1. Let your student tag along during your meetings. Most trainees will get to meet with their advisor at least once or twice a month, if not every week. Even if your time with your PI is limited and precious, there is no harm in letting your undergraduate student sit in on your meeting. Your boss will most likely not care (or may not even notice) that there is a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergraduate in the room. If your time is really tight, take the time to explain to your student that they need to be “a fly on the wall,” writing down their thoughts or questions so you can discuss them in detail later.
  2. Start an email conversation with your PI about the undergraduate’s project. PIs are busy people. They have meetings to attend, clinic hours to fulfill, proposals to write, papers to review, and conferences to go to, especially in the summer when undergraduates have more time to spend in lab. However, many PIs who do not have the time to sit down and meet do have a few minutes to type an email. If your PI is one who is responsive to emails, take advantage—email your supervisor about the undergraduate project (cc’ing your student of course) and start an email conversation that way. If your lab uses other tools to communicate, like Slack or Trello, make sure that your undergrad is included in those, too!
  3. Get your student involved in lab meeting.  If your lab has a rotating schedule for lab meeting, try to get your student involved! If taking up a whole lab meeting seems to be a bit much, maybe they can give a mini-presentation during your slot. If you have a bunch of undergrads in the lab over the summer, it might make sense to have them all give mini-presentations during one lab meeting. This is a great chance for the undergraduate to have your supervisor’s undivided attention, as well as get feedback from other lab members they may not interact with regularly. What’s more, many supervisors would be happier to have a one-on-one meeting with an undergraduate student once they have discussed some exciting results during lab meeting! Having experience with the student’s presentation and argumentation skills can be useful for your PI when it comes to writing a reference letter for your student at the end of their time in the lab.

Take a good look at your motivations

Graduate and postdoctoral researchers mentor undergraduates for a whole variety of reasons. Some have a genuine passion for teaching and want to inspire young people. Others are following orders from their own boss. Yet others hope to get some help on their many projects. Research has shown that you are going to be a much better mentor and get far more out of this experience if you view it as a teaching opportunity, as opposed to getting grunt work out of the way. The reasons for this are apparent to anyone who has ever mentored an undergraduate. Science is hard! Most undergraduates will have little or no prior laboratory experience, which means they will get things wrong at least as many times as they get things right. Research involves trial and error. What really matters is how mentors choose to use student mistakes—as a teachable moment or as a waste of time. Of course, this means that as a mentor you need to strike a balance between not burdening your student with too high expectations and giving your student work that is meaningful and that will engage them intellectually.

When I was an undergraduate doing research, I accidentally cloned the GFP tag out of the plasmids I was tasked with making (I have no idea how that happened). My excellent mentor, who was a postgraduate student at the time, thought this was pretty funny. She helped me sequence my plasmids to figure out the problem and helped me clone the GFP tag back in. We took the time to figure this out, and “wasted” two weeks of my summer understanding what happened. It was a blast! She ended up with a library of constructs that she could use (they even snaked their way into a publication) and I fell in love with research. That is because while my work was useful to her, she did not need me. The work she needed to get done for her thesis and primary papers, she kept for herself so that my slow and clumsy progress would be of no hindrance to her. And it worked! All the while, I always felt as though I was doing something useful and understood that all my hard work was not a waste of time. My mentor managed to strike the perfect balance between giving me work that was purposeful but that did not put too much pressure on me as I was learning.

Here are a few ideas on how to balance letting undergraduate projects be teaching moments and challenging your students with meaningful work.

  1. Pick a side project.  Most scientific projects tend to develop like the hydra: for every head that we cut off, 10 more sprout. That is, for every scientific question we answer, 10 more come up. Some are more relevant than others, which is how most researchers differentiate between their main project and side ventures. Most trainees hinge their career on their main project turning out well, trying to stay away from potential dead ends and irrelevant projects. However, wild side-steps are also how some of the greatest scientific ideas came to light (just think of penicillin!). This is the ideal opportunity for undergraduate students to swoop in. They can take on a side project that has the potential to turn into something useful, but that will not side-track you if it goes completely awry.
  2. Think of simple ways your student can help you. If you are really busy and in the middle of your graduate or your postdoc project, it can be really hard to watch your student waste time on a not-so-crucial avenue of investigation while you are drowning in crucial work. Of course, it’s ok to get your student to help you! However, it may be best to choose simple ways in which they can lighten your burden. Instead of running entire experiments that are critical, can they keep your buffers stocked? Can they maintain your cell cultures? Can the take care of other simple tasks that clutter up your day? This is also a great way for undergrads to be involved and develop marketable skills before they can work independently.
  3. Keep checking in with your student. The whole thing with students is that they learn. What is a reasonable level of challenge at the beginning of June may have become boring by the end of July. At the same time, students are also people with lots of stresses and commitments. Maybe they are studying for the MCAT or preparing their grad school applications. What is an okay load in May might actually become really overwhelming and stressful by September! The best way to make sure you are not over- or under-loading your student is to keep checking in with them. This is especially straightforward if you set up a clearly defined structure early on, with weekly meetings and regular written or oral reports for students who stay in the lab longer than just one summer. Be open and direct and make it clear that you want them to be challenged but also happy and in a place where they are able to learn. Most mentors find that setting clear expectations early on and making sure that your mentee knows you are always open for dialogue are essential to keep the mentor-mentee relationship healthy.

No matter your teaching style, mentoring an undergraduate as they first enter the lab can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. Communicating effectively and managing expectations are key to making sure that your mentee has a great experience and is encouraged to carry on with research as they progress in their career!

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.

About the Author:

Gaia obtained her PhD from King's College, London working on melanoma cell plasticity and how it affects metastasis and patient survival. She has since moved to the United States, where she is currently a lecturing fellow at Duke University. Her work focuses on understanding how breast cancer metastasizes to the bone and manipulates the tumor micro-environment. She loves writing about science and communicating her passion for all things biology. You can find more of her writing here: