Most scientists will mentor undergraduates at one time in their career. If these students are well trained, they can be an important asset for early career scientists and sometimes even generate publishable data. As scientists, it is our responsibility to train future scientists and encourage critical thinking; teaching by example is often the best way to learn. However, often undergraduates are unable to complete their research projects or their data are not of publication caliber. This can be avoided by providing good mentoring to young scientists.
In my career, I have mentored five undergraduates. Some have been invaluable to my research and have been authors on my publications. They have also
successfully defended undergraduate theses. Others discovered they were not interested in bench experiments, and I have learned through both types of interactions. While your approach to mentoring will vary with every undergraduate’s unique interests, there are a few key points that work well for most. Here are my six best practices for mentoring undergrads:
Choose wisely. Picking the right undergraduate to work in your lab can be tricky, and unfortunately it is not an exact science. Most are too young and inexperienced to know what they are interested in yet. This can be an advantage as they may be open to a lot of different projects. When interviewing an undergraduate, talk about your research and gauge their response. Laying out your expectations for time commitments and the level of intellectual contribution you anticipate also can be helpful at the very beginning. It usually takes at least a semester to judge an undergrad’s scientific acumen. If they are taking research for credit, help them find a research project that matches their interests. Encourage them to visit different labs before making their decision.
Encourage independent projects. At the beginning of an undergraduate’s research career, it is imperative to spark interest in the background material and encourage them to read the scientific literature and analyze data independently. This not only gives students confidence, but also helps them become more intellectually involved with the project. Sometimes undergraduates are given only menial tasks around the lab, which are not conducive to inspiring interest in science; this can even leave a bad impression. Explaining the importance and reason behind those tasks (even simple genotyping) can encourage them to put more effort into their daily work. To encourage more students to be critical thinkers and be creative about their science, a mentor must take the student’s work seriously. Independence in research also helps undergrads grow as scientists and be responsible for the data they generate. Obtaining results and analyzing data independently also instills a sense of ownership that can help motivate further projects and stimulate their interest in science.
Explain protocols. Some undergraduates start research as early as the summer of their freshman year. At that stage, it is tempting for a mentor to hand them a protocol and show them the steps without explaining the science that supports the experiment. This method may be faster and less cumbersome for the mentor, but usually fails to inspire critical appreciation for the scientific method. It also predisposes students to make mistakes if any deviation from protocol is required. Knowing the background behind an experimental protocol also helps undergrads to troubleshoot a procedure and understand which parts of the protocol can be varied productively. Although it may be more time consuming at the beginning, ultimately it is more rewarding to invest time in explaining every step of a protocol and ensuring that the undergrad understands the biological significance of the experiment.
Facilitate summer research. During the semester, undergraduate students have fragmented time between classes and are juggling multiple assignments. It is often hard for them to learn and progress significantly in the lab with so many demands on their time. Many universities provide funding for undergraduate summer full-time research, and this is crucial for the undergraduate’s growth as a scientist. As a good mentor, help students write good undergraduate research proposals when they apply for fellowships supporting summer research at their home institution or elsewhere. This also gives them a taste of applying for funding and writing about their research, which is an important skill even for class reports. Being fulltime with no demands from classes helps them to learn faster in lab, and then they can decide if they want to continue in research. Working full time on a dedicated project can generate data that can give them a sense of accomplishment and help them to be involved further. Thus the nature of the project matters and is actually of paramount importance so that undergraduates can obtain some data they can present at the end of summer.
Teach time management. This is a pivotal skill and very important for any busy person to succeed. Undergraduates tend to take on more courses than they can handle. Although it is good to encourage enthusiasm in academics, it is up to us to counsel them. In the lab, certain protocols require extensive prior preparation and years of experience may be required for that level of foresight. A great way to maximize undergraduates’ contribution to research is to work with their schedules and help them plan experiments around it every week. By having them write out a weekly schedule of experiments and classes, it can help them visualize the time that they have to complete a task. Eventually, they will learn to manage time and juggle classes and experiments themselves without supervision. They will also learn to ask for help in finishing experiments if their schedule does not permit it instead of rushing through a protocol. This valuable skill will be useful, no matter what they do in the future.
Mentor writing projects and presentations. A component of appreciating undergraduate work, even if it is nominal, is to provide support for any research presentations that their coursework requires. Supervising their writing and discussing experiments with them can also encourage them to think more critically and advance their project on their own. The training they receive in the lab is unique since it requires skills not generally honed in classroom teaching. Well-trained undergraduates often choose research as their career path and end up making great contributions to science.
Despite your best mentoring efforts, it is important to realize that not every undergraduate is cut out for research. It is the responsibility of the mentor to recognize early on if the strengths of the undergraduate lie not in bench work, but elsewhere. Both the mentor and the mentee can lose valuable time if the undergraduate is not able to produce quality data because of disengagement with the project. This is a good way for undergraduates to figure out what their other interests are. Such cases can usually be avoided during recruitment or during the initial semesters of research.
Undoubtedly, undergraduates can contribute to science and even spearhead projects that have significant impact if they are given enough guidance, encouragement, and opportunity to expand. Mentors should feel responsible for the undergraduates’ success in any sphere of life. Giving young scientists independence and scientific freedom with supervision can not only build future scientists but also provide valuable skills to the future leaders of biomedical fields.
This blog post presented by COMPASS, ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students).
About the Author:
Arunika is a post-doctoral researcher in the labs of Drs. Michael Lampson and Ben Black at the University of Pennsylvania. She is working on the mechanism of centromere inheritance and maintenance in the mammalian germline.