April 29, 2014

Two Cents: Undergraduate Research

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This week in Science we talked to professors about their research experiences as undergraduates and advice they have for current undergraduates seeking to get involved in research. Prof. Ken Kemphues, molecular biology and genetics, studies the genetic basis of development. Prof. Ellis Loew, veterinary biomedical sciences, studies the ecology and evolution of vision.

What area was your undergraduate research in? More specifically, what was the project?

“I worked in a lab that studied endocrinology using amphibians as model organisms. In particular, I studied the biochemistry of the secretion of the hedonic glands of the red-spotted newt. The male rubs the female’s nose on this gland, which is on the side of his head, and as a consequence, her behavior is modified. She follows the male around the pond picking up the [sperm packets] that he deposits. I discovered that the secretions contained [a certain type of protein]. This earned me co-authorship on a publication.”

— Prof. Kemphues

“I did a small project on electric fish when I was a senior at UCLA. However, it did not involve a thesis.”

— Prof. Ellis Loew

How did you first get involved in research?

“I answered an advert for somebody to build some lab equipment for a professor at UCLA. I would watch him work and he would tell me what he was doing. After a bit I decided that academia was the life for me!”

— Prof. Loew

“I requested to do volunteer work in a few labs and kept asking until one of them took me in.”

— Prof. Kemphues

What initially drew you to your undergrad research area or project?

“See the answer above — the professor said yes.”

— Prof. Kemphues

“Opportunity and the desire to understand how our senses provide us with the information we use to construct our views of the world.”

— Prof. Loew

How closely related is your undergraduate research to what you study now?

“Only moderately related. I wished to study developmental biology.”

—Prof. Kemphues

“It relates only in the broadest sense in that it dealt with sensory physiology and electrophysiology.”

— Prof. Loew

What would you say was the most valuable thing you learned from undergraduate research?

“That I could do it and that I enjoyed it. I also got some advice relating to applying to grad school.”

— Prof. Kemphues


— Prof. Loew

What is one piece of advice you have for undergraduates looking to get involved in research?

“Do not undertake a project in which you have no inherent interest or emotional attachment. You should enjoy what you are doing and gain satisfaction from it. Too often students decide that doing some kind of research will beef up their application for professional school and take on a project just because the professor says yes.”

— Prof. Loew

“Don’t let a narrow research focus restrict your choice of laboratories. The main thing is finding a lab with a supportive environment that will allow you to learn whether you really want to go into research. If you can find that and a lab doing something you already think is cool, great. But if a research career is for you, then almost any project will become interesting once you become involved.”

— Prof. Kemphues