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Research Opportunities for College Students and How to Find Them

As a freshman at Johns Hopkins, one of the first things I wanted to do was take advantage of the variety of research opportunities my school offers.  During orientation I was given a vague idea of what to do: go online, find an interesting lab and email the professor.  It’s a relatively simple process, but it can be very stressful if you’re a Type A person like me.  Luckily for you, I have detailed my experience in a step-by-step procedure that you can use as an example during your search for a lab.  I also wanted to go over a couple questions many people have regarding research positions for high school or college students.

Finding a lab

My first step was to go to the Biology department’s website; I wanted something on campus and easily accessible, but you should definitely check out the graduate schools.  I know plenty of people working at the Hopkins Medical School or the Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  Once you get to the school or department website of your choice, find a list of faculty; usually, their names and research interests will be listed.  From there, you can open tabs on all the people who seem interesting and scroll through some of the articles published by their labs.  Screen Shot 2016-04-01 at 7.32.03 PMOnce you find a couple professors, go to their lab websites; there is usually a link you can find once you click the faculty member’s name.  The website usually describes in more detail what each lab is doing and includes contact information, though this is usually also found on the faculty page.  At this point, I ranked the labs based on who published most recently.  You don’t have to do this, but I wasn’t really sure what kind of research I wanted to do.  As a result, I ended up with ten to fifteen tabs open with virtually no preference of one over the other.  This method also helps you find a lab that is really active and more likely to get you published.  After you rank your top five, go ahead and read one or two of the labs’ published articles; there should be a link on the website for that, too.  Also, keep in mind that some professors write very specifically that they are NOT looking for anybody new to join.  You can go ahead and try if you really want, but don’t waste your time emailing too many people who will almost certainly not even respond.

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Now is the hard part: writing the email.  I get very anxious sending emails to my professors and it can be hard to even decide where to start.  My basic format ended up being to a) introduce myself and my intentions, b) mention my interest in the lab’s work, c) detail any previous research experience, and d) ask if any positions were available.  I set my subject as “Inquiring About a Research Opportunity” but you can write anything of the sort.  The following two emails are the ones that received response, though; the other three were very similar to these.

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As I previously mentioned, I only received two responses out of the five emails I sent but I didn’t care to search further.  I had relatively casual interviews with both professors; one had me come in a couple of times to meet everyone in his lab.  I didn’t end up getting that position, but the lab that did hire me has definitely been a good choice.

Working in a lab

When I first interviewed with the Dr. Kim, he said that if I accepted the position, he expected me to work about ten hours a week during the school year (with an hourly wage) and stay over the summer (with a stipend to pay for housing).  Not all labs pay their undergraduate students since the experience itself is incredibly useful, but most will pay you over the summer for housing.  Also, my work schedule is really flexible; some weeks I work over ten hours and some weeks I work less.  I generally work in five hour intervals twice a week, but it’s up to you as long as you can get the work done.

I also found that most professors were not opposed to hiring freshmen.  They want students who will be able to stay for a while, though they won’t keep you from going elsewhere if you find another lab that is better suited for your interests.  They also won’t hold it against you if you’ve had previous research experience since they’ll have to teach you everything anyway.  Every lab does things differently, so no matter how much research you might have done elsewhere, they’ll probably start you from the bottom (though that is not always the case).

My first couple months consisted of making media, pouring plates, and shadowing some of the staff members.  Now, I am learning methods that will be used during my summer project; this includes keeping my plates of C. elegans alive, designing a CRISPR GFP repair template, learning how to inject worms, etc.  However, I am still required to pour plates every once in a while to keep the stock full.  The four undergraduates in my lab are working on three experiments (two of us are working together) with different members of the staff and there is quite a range of possible projects between everyone.

I think that about sums it up for my experience.  There are other ways to go about finding positions; sometimes the professors or TAs who teach classes are doing research, or you might meet people who could get a word in for you at their labs.  You might also consider just dropping by the PI’s office to talk about any of the lab’s papers that interest you.  There is certainly not only one way to go about this – talk to upperclassmen and academic advisors and good luck with your search!

Written by: Shreya Singireddy

Edited by: Ruby Halfacre