Have you ever been wandering around campus, or been on a campus tour, when you suddenly find yourself surrounded by bulletin boards covered in large brightly-coloured posters, each accompanied by a student in a name tag? Well, if you have, then you have experienced undergraduate research first hand! What you are seeing are the results of months of research by students who are now presenting their hard-earned data and results to the public. How did these students end up presenting their very own research in a professional setting?
In my case, I have two different experiences with research. First, in the summer before grade 12, I participated in the WISEST Summer Research Program, where I did a project in Biostatistics. As a high school student, I had no idea how much work went into a research project, so it was an extremely valuable experience. Next, in the summer of 2013, I worked in the lab of Dr. Konrad Fassbender, PhD, who works in Palliative Care in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry. That project culminated in multiple poster presentations and an abstract (i.e. summary of the paper) that I wrote myself, which is a pretty big deal for an undergrad like me!
Although getting involved in undergraduate research is a really cool experience, a lot of students are unaware of how to start a research project of their own. Luckily, there are tons of initiatives and programs on campus that are available to help you to take the first step to giving your own poster presentation.
First off, why should you do undergraduate research in the first place? Well, I have a bunch of reasons:
- Experience – Getting research experience is super valuable because it encompasses transferable knowledge and skills that can be applied to future research, your courses, or even your future career!
- It looks awesome on a resume – When you’re looking for a job after your degree, employers pay particular attention to people with research experience, because it speaks directly to your work ethic and ability to work with others.
- Networking – Being part of a research project is an avenue to present at symposiums and conferences, all of which are attended by academics and experts alike – these are perfect opportunities to perfect your networking skills and make some new connections.
- Publications – How cool would it be to have a publication on your resume? Supervisors will often give authorships (i.e. include your name in the list of authors) to students who contribute significantly to a project.
So now that you’ve decided you would like to do some research, how do you get started? You have a few options:
- WISEST/HYRS – Still in high school, but itching to get involved? Apply for a position in the WISEST Summer Research Program, or the Heritage Youth Researcher Summer Program (HYRS). Both involve summer studentships where you work (and get paid!) in the lab of a U of A researcher and contribute to one of their ongoing projects, culminating in a poster presentation at the end. As a WISEST alumni myself, I highly recommend checking these programs out!
- Ask around – Have a favourite professor who runs a lab? Send him/her an email to see if they’re looking for summer students, or have availabilities for assistantships throughout the year. You never know, you might get lucky!
- URi – Check out the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URi) – an organization geared towards supporting undergraduate research and making connections between students and academics alike. They also host a week long celebration of undergraduate research every November, including a research symposium where students can present their research! Contacting a representative of the program is an excellent way to start your research journey.
- CAPS – CAPS is the U of A’s career centre for students with questions about everything from resumes to research! Pop by their office in the Students’ Union Building (SUB) 2-100 to book a consultation with an advisor, or pick up some pamphlets with loads of information.
- Honours degree – Taking an honours degree is an excellent way to get involved in research. These degrees, while more challenging, have research projects built into the course load, so you actually get credit for working in the lab! For example, since I’m in the Honours Physiology program, I get to do an Honours Project in my fourth year, where I will work in the lab of a U of A researcher – I’m very excited!
- Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Researcher Award – Students in the Faculty of Arts have the option to apply for the Roger S. Smith Undergraduate Student Researcher Award, which is a $5,000 scholarship to cover 15 weeks of summer research. Deadline to apply is March 15th, 2014!
Still unsure about pursuing research in your undergraduate degree? No idea of what to expect? Here’s a few things I have learned from my past research experiences:
- It’s a lot of work – I’m not going to lie, research is not easy. Your supervisor wants to challenge you, and the work load can become pretty time-consuming. There is often data collection/entry involved, and sometimes it can be a bit tedious. Never fear though! As you progress with your project, you will become more efficient, and it won’t seem so overwhelming.
- You’ll be wrong a lot – As students, we like to be right ALL the time. Doing research means making a prediction, testing it out, and then learning from those results. A lot of times, things just don’t work quite right, so you’ll need to fine-tune your methodology throughout. Keep in mind that making mistakes is a part of the process and it’s not a bad thing – it could push your research in a totally unexpected direction!
- Independent work – Occasionally, your supervisor may have to go to a conference out of town, or may have other commitments. The expectation is that you will continue your work independently and report back to your supervisor regularly. When I was a WISEST student, my supervisor went out of town for a week, during the time I had to make my poster- something I had never done before! Although a bit scary, the independence was quite empowering, as I was in control of my own work, without someone watching me 100% of the time.
- Ask questions – This is your opportunity to get to know your supervisor/research team on a one-on-one basis. Take advantage, and learn as much as you can by showing interest in the procedures and underlying theories of your research.
In closing, although research can sometimes get a little boring or overwhelming, it is 100% worth your time. The skills and techniques that you learn will help you in future endeavours, and the connections you will make are invaluable and will last a lifetime.
Best of luck with your research projects!