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IN MY OPINION

You should hire an undergrad for your lab

Undergraduate colleagues make you a better researcher and teacher. Here’s how.

By JOHN TRANT | DEC 29 2017

When I started my new faculty position, I bought a book called Making the Right Moves: A Practical Guide to Scientific Management for Postdocs and New Faculty. In general, most of the advice about management, grant-writing and balancing the commitments that come with a faculty position is useful. However, there is one piece of advice that I not only disagreed with but blatantly ignored: “If you decide to take on an undergraduate, consider limiting their assignment to one semester.”

As a second-year chemistry professor, I currently have 17 undergraduate scientists on my research team. I don’t think of them as students but as researchers who happen to be pursuing an undergraduate degree. This is an important distinction. Focusing on the title “undergraduate student” can lead us to underestimate their ability to contribute to research or to relegate them to tasks such as washing glassware or racking pipette tips. These are not inspiring transformative experiences. We need to involve them in research.

However, with this many undergraduates, relying on a one-on-one mentoring system is impossible. So, we have instituted a vertical peer-mentoring (VPM) system, where senior undergraduates, who are themselves mentored by graduate trainees, are responsible for mentoring more junior undergraduates.

This system arose from a very simple observation: undergraduate science students are often expected to complete an honours thesis in their fourth year, despite having had almost no laboratory experience in the previous three years. Over those eight months, we expect them to not only develop the required technical skills, learn project management and write, but do that while attempting to integrate into a completely unfamiliar lab culture and taking a full course-load. This is overwhelming.

But what if this learning could be more evenly spread across the degree? Our in-laboratory VPM system is based on a three-year undergraduate commitment (extendable to four) that begins in the first year of their undergraduate studies. Researchers spend their first year receiving technical training from a committee of more senior undergrads overseen by a graduate student. This allows everyone eight to 12 months to simply focus on becoming skilled in organic synthesis and having fun in the lab.

In their second year, these undergraduate researchers help train the new incoming trainees – there is no better way to learn than by teaching. They also manage small projects, where they learn about literature research and project management. These essential skills are best taught by doing rather than through classwork. By their third year, researchers are well-prepared to complete their honours thesis, having already put in 1,000 to 2,000 hours of research experience. By thoroughly documenting the training of others, and by increasing the chance for publishing their work, VPM helps the participants improve the metrics on their CVs.

Our undergraduate researchers are not second-class citizens of the Trant team. Some will be in our lab for four years, the same amount of time as our PhDs. As members of our research family, they take up the associated rights and responsibilities that go with being practising scientists. This is essential. It provides everyone with a sense of agency, a sense of belonging and a sense of contribution to the broader research program’s goals.

From my experience with VPM, when you provide the support and the opportunity for greater responsibility, undergraduate researchers will want to take it up. They will solve technical challenges and work with the rest of the team to address problems. Simply put, they become researchers together. The lab group – senior and junior undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows – becomes a second family. I have no closer friends than those I met during my PhD program: we might not talk for months or years, but when we do, it is like we are back in trenches, brothers and sisters in arms. It is the same for my team, except there are a lot more people sharing the trench. These friendships set them up for success in their classes, in their personal life and in their future professional life.

Teaching labs, despite our best efforts, will only ever be pale, washed-out reflections of a discovery-based experience. It means that my graduate students have to kick the undergrads out at 10 p.m. so they can go home. It means that I have to come in on weekends to supervise those who “can’t fit in my lab time this week, can I come Sunday afternoon?” It means feeling constantly re-inspired in my chosen role as teacher and researcher, and knowing that nothing I do in the classroom will ever change a student like experience does – like the time an undergrad saved us from a (safely contained) leak. She was right; I had been inobservant, and that was an awesome moment for her development and confidence. Undergraduate research generates these transformative moments.

However, if this approach didn’t also help me, I wouldn’t be doing it. It may seem like a lot of work but it isn’t. For a traditional model honours student, my best-case return on four months of training investment is approximately four months of productive chemical research. Under the VPM system, I get two to three years. By the time they are managing projects, they are not just doing it with this new lab they joined, they are doing something they think is really cool and with their second family. They have bought in, they have committed time and they want to produce.

What does this mean to my output? It means that in my first 18 months at the University of Windsor I submitted 43 grants, published seven papers and submitted six others, authored 30 conference presentations (including those presented by the undergrads), graduated three honours students, taught three courses, initiated three separate industrial collaborations, and established over a dozen national and international collaborations. All while mentoring over 20 researchers as a new professor. We recently submitted our first article with undergraduate co-authors, and we expect the projects that many of them have been involved in to begin to be published over the next six months. They are not co-authors because they are students, they are co-authors because they are researchers, and this mentality is driving the atmosphere of innovation in my group.

Now, I am incredibly fortunate to be part of a very flexible and responsive faculty of science and have received a lot of support (including financial) from the dean’s office in trying out this VPM program. But I think anyone can do it. So colleagues, I recommend that you hire an undergrad – or two, or 15. The students will thank you, and you will thank them.

John Trant is an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Windsor.

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  1. Stewart Rood / December 29, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    I also strongly support the engagement of undergrads in research labs but my preference is for fewer students. With 35 years at the University of Lethbridge (UL), I’ve supervised more than 100 undergrads and my lab has often involved about 10 members, with 3-5 undergrads, 3-5 grad students, a couple of research associates, and a post-doc or visiting scholar.

    The undergrads vary substantially in their capabilities and I regard them as trainees, not yet colleagues. They seldom have the maturity to work alone and require substantial supervision for their research to achieve a rigorous standard. Their capacity increases with experience and I often retain students for more than one semester. Most of the other UL science faculty also have undergrads as well as grad students, and it’s rather common to involve a tiered system of supervision, often pairing or grouping undergrads, grad students and others, probably similar to the VPM system.

    So, yes to a few, but perhaps not 15.

  2. Jimmy Witherspoon / January 4, 2018 at 1:29 pm

    “…technical training from a committee of more senior undergrads overseen by a graduate student…”

    17 undergraduate students in one year may very well satisfy the NSERC game, but if one is not really training them because the “training” is being done by other students, one should not take credit for doing so.

    • John Trant / January 18, 2018 at 9:15 pm

      I actually completely agree with you! And I really am not doing this to game NSERC. I don’t think my committee will care to be honest.

      But looking at my career, I was never trained by a PI even when I was the only undergrad in a lab. Or when I was a grad student. Or as a PDF (a bit more of an exception there, but still probably a grand total of 10 hours of actual training over 15 months). I don’t think this is weird or unusual in chemistry especially, though I agree completely that this is a problem with the way we have academia set-up, and I would be so much happier spending more time training in the lab rather than writing grants. I think it is idealistic to focus on the 1-on-1 faculty-undergrad training system. It just happens rarely. Even at a mid-sized institution like UWindsor. And it certainly isn’t scaleable to provide a large number of students with this opportunity.

      That being said, it would be so much better for everyone if we could do the training in the lab, and I wish I had more time for my grad students and PDFs to work alongside them too!

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