Symbiosis: the mutual benefits of mentoring undergraduates in the lab

As a PhD student in a small lab, I recently asked my PI if we could recruit some undergraduates to increase our lab’s productivity and efficiency. He gave me the OK, and, fortunately, I didn’t have to look far to find eager students ready to don their lab coats a few times a week. Since I was a teaching assistant in a foundational laboratory course, I sent a quick email to three students who had shown a deeper interest in the class material—one lighting up with excitement at the sight of DNA bands on her first agarose gel, another writing the most thorough lab reports I have ever had the privilege of grading, and one simply asking the question, “Why?” when we discussed his experimental results. Unsurprisingly, all three students enthusiastically replied and couldn’t wait to get started in a research lab. Perhaps what has been most surprising is just how mutually beneficial this mentorship experience has been; I like to think of it as symbiosis in the lab.

If you aren’t in a teaching position and would like to recruit undergraduate students, contact a professor or graduate teaching assistant of a lab course and ask them to reach out to their most inquisitive students to see if they are interested in research. They can direct those students to you, and before you know it, you’ll have many undergraduate students eager to get to work.

To cultivate a symbiotic relationship in the lab, you should take several key steps when mentoring undergraduates.

Explain the lab’s research.

At this point, students have likely tried to wade through the complexities of your lab’s publications, but they may have a hard time recognizing the main goal of your current research. That’s where you come in. In your first meeting, introduce the new undergraduates to the big picture and break up the different projects into digestible pieces. Share drafts from previous grant applications or presentations that help explain the rationale for your research more simply. You can also provide undergraduates with your own tips and tricks for reading scientific articles since you’ve definitely honed that skill over the years.

Encourage questions.

The lab can be an intimidating place when you’re first getting started. It’s important for undergraduates to feel comfortable, not only in asking you in-depth questions about lab concepts but also about simple things like where to find new pipette tips or how to make a buffer. Your approachability creates an environment of learning.

Be present.

Work closely with the undergraduates as they become acquainted with the lab. I typically show the undergraduates in our lab a technique step by step and have them perform the same steps alongside me. The next time they perform the technique, I make sure I am physically in the lab to provide any guidance they may need. In my experience,  undergraduates seem much more comfortable when approaching the technique for the third time on their own. I still make sure the undergraduates have my cell number for any questions or mishaps that may arise if I’m not physically present in the lab.

Give students agency over their project.

After practicing some basic lab techniques, discuss upcoming side projects with the undergraduates. If one project, in particular, piques a student’s interest, give them ownership. Explain the experimental design in more detail and allow them to schedule their own experiments. Undergraduates feel more accountable to the lab when they have agency over a project. The projects don’t need to be elaborate; even straightforward, small-scale projects, like optimizing antibody dilutions for immunostaining, provide opportunities for learning and troubleshooting.

Be understanding.

It’s important to set clear expectations for undergraduates in the lab. Establish weekly schedules and plan out experiments, but also recognize the pressure undergraduates face when it comes to grades. In our lab, undergraduates take time off to prepare for exams when needed; I just ask that they let me know a few days in advance so I can plan experiments accordingly. It’s also very beneficial to let undergraduates know that it’s okay to fail. You don’t want undergraduates to feel discouraged or like they’ve disappointed you when one of their first experiments doesn’t work. Let them know it’s a normal part of the scientific process.

Respect their time.

When you schedule meetings with undergraduates, show up. Further show you value their time by having a plan for them on days they are scheduled to work in the lab. This will help undergraduates to feel like an important part of the team. And when you respect undergraduates’ time, they tend to respect yours in turn.

Creating an environment of learning and growth for the undergraduates in your lab not only benefits them but also greatly benefits you—establishing symbiosis! Scheduling trainings, organizing projects, and planning experiments leads to invaluable leadership experience for you, the graduate students and postdocs, that will be useful in virtually every career you may pursue. Mentoring undergraduates also entails explaining your research in a more accessible way. Explaining science in relatable terms is essential to teach effectively in higher education, advocate for scientific research to policymakers, or communicate science to non-scientists—from business executives to family members. Arguably the best thing undergraduates can bring to the lab is energy. Undergraduate students are excited to see research happen in real life. Graduate students, postdocs, and beyond tend to become a little complacent or even cynical at the bench. Having the energy and enthusiasm of undergraduates in the lab motivates me, and I bet it will motivate you, too!


About the Author:

Jami Conley Calderon is a PhD student in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Central Florida. She studies the role of mutant dynein in the peripheral neuropathy Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease type 2O. Email: Twitter: @JamiLynnCC