Get your foot in the lab door: trying undergrad research

Posted on October 12, 2022

A woman in a laboratory holds up a petri dish.
Mo'nay Rodgers conducts research as an undergrad in Dr. Joseph Graves' genomics laboratory. Photo credit: Martin Kane

At this point of the semester, you’ve probably settled into your class schedule, figured out your favorite spot to study, and spent some quality time in Greensboro.

What’s next? Perhaps it’s time to dig deeper into extracurriculars. One of UNCG’s strengths is strong relationships between faculty and students. Conducting research, or engaging in creative activity, can be a great way to connect with our great faculty and get one-on-one guidance in what interests you.

You may have heard a professor speak enthusiastically about developing new knowledge or read about a topic in your textbook that piqued your interest, but how do you take that next step and enter a research environment?

For some students who have caught the research bug, taking that first leap into the lab – or archives or studio – may feel intimidating. We sat down with Dr. Lee Phillips, director of the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship & Creativity Office, who provided some insight about how to make that connection with a faculty member and find your research match.

Why should an undergrad engage in research?

“Getting involved in research is something that helps facilitate your learning on a level that you just can’t get going to class,” Phillips says. He explains that research teaches a student critical thinking and information literacy. These skill sets make you a stronger candidate for most jobs, even if you don’t end up in a research field. For example, research helps bolster communication skills. Getting involved in research can help you build relationships in college with faculty members and other students that can enrich your college experience, expose you to new career opportunities, and serve you well in your future.

What are the types of projects you can do?

When some hear the word “research,” they may think only of a laboratory environment and a white coat. But Phillips explains that the range of research opportunities extends beyond this stereotype. A student may be working with a faculty member on scholarly work about 14th century literature, visiting the library archives for an art history project, or conducting in-depth interviews for a social science study. UNCG’s yearly undergraduate research expo has categories for Arts and Humanities, Health Sciences, Natural, Physical and Mathematical Sciences, and Social Sciences, Education, and Business. “No matter what your passion is, it could always be fostered by conducting research or creative inquiry related to it,” Phillips says.

When should you get involved?

“The earlier the better,” Phillips says to students interested in gaining experience in research. While it can be difficult to find the right fit during your freshman year or even know which area you would like to pursue, the trick is not waiting until the last minute – your last semester as a senior, for example – to get started. Delving into a research setting with at least a year to commit to a project, he says, can help maximize the benefits you receive from engaging in this extracurricular activity and your contributions. Starting early also gives you the opportunity to explore more than one area of interest, in case your first try isn’t a perfect fit.

What are the first steps?

Ask yourself what you want out of research, Phillips says. What skills are you looking to build? What are general areas that interest you? Once you have a sense of the answers to these questions, take some time to thoughtfully consider different faculty members’ scholarship. Track down their websites or some of their publications. Librarians are available to assist, if you require some help with this step. Read through their work. It’s okay if you don’t understand everything, just try and get the gist. Brainstorm a few questions. From there, you’re ready to reach out.

Here’s how to contact a professor.

Phillips recommends you email the professor with clear information about your interests and goals. Another approach? “Never underestimate the power of actually knocking on a door,” he says. Students can show up at a faculty member’s office during their scheduled office hours. The in-person approach may help you develop a relationship with a professor, which could be the beginning of a fruitful research collaboration.

Once you start, what do you do if you feel confused or unsure?

Phillips encourages students to request regular meetings with their research advisor when they are starting out. Other members of the research team – like postdoctoral associates, graduate students, and other undergraduates – can also serve as valuable resources. “Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know something. Talk with your labmates,” Phillips says. “You might say, ‘Hey, did you ever have a problem with this?’ or ‘I’m having trouble with this.’” You’ll often find answers – and a sense of community.

What resources can you tap at UNCG?

UNCG has several resources to support students in their research journey, from developing their thesis to securing funding. While conducting research, you have the opportunity to enroll in an independent study course and access URSCO assistantships. After two semesters of this type of enrollment, your research participation can be represented on your transcript. One of UNCG’s biggest research programs is the McNair Scholars program, which allows students to develop their research questions with multiple advisors during a summer, attend workshops to better their comprehension of their chosen subject, and present their research at a conference. Other resources available to UNCG students include the Jackson Library Archives and the Office of Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (URSCO), which provides countless webinars, workshops, and tutorials for students looking to own their education through scholarly inquiry.

Story by Dana Broadus & Rachel Damiani


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