Monday, February 21, 2011

Next Steps for Undergraduate Researchers

In my last post, I wrote about the undergraduate teaching I've been doing this year, and about my attempts to guide interested students along the path to careers in research. The other ORDER Teacher-Scholars and I serve as role models by talking about our personal journeys to graduate school alongside our research findings. In addition, we try to design lectures and classroom activities that will be helpful to our students outside the context of this course. We also provide group and individual mentoring for students pursuing their own research interests.

I've been thinking a lot about where our students might go after completing our seminar. How can we help them apply what they've learned? Can they aspire to something more than just an 'A' on their transcripts? Can our class help them add a line or two to their CVs? In that vein, here are some of the goals that I've encouraged my students to pursue.

Undergraduate Research

This seems a little redundant, given the title of my post, but not all of our students are currently engaged in research on campus. Last semester, the students were all first years, so they hadn't the opportunity to get involved in research yet. By structuring our course around our own research process and requiring the freshmen to design and carry out their own projects, we tried to empower them to think of themselves as researchers and scholars.

Since the end of the fall semester, I've had five students (out of 18) contact me with questions about finding a lab. I've written letters of recommendation for summer research programs, encouraged students to apply for Emory's SIRE and SURE fellowships, provided lists of Emory faculty working in various fields, and even helped one student join my adviser's lab. I'm very pleased with this outcome. Although the majority of the credit surely goes to the high-achieving students themselves, I like to think that the mentoring we provided had at least some impact on students seeking out research opportunities.

Education and Outreach

Each student in the ORDER seminar formulates a group or individual research project. In addition to writing papers about their findings, the students are required to integrate a "creative component" into presentations of their work. Last semester, students made videos, wrote and performed original songs (with costumes and choreography!), and acted out skits to convey the key points of their research to an audience of their peers. We also encouraged them to think about how they might convey their work to other audiences, like K-12 students or the general public. In class, I've promoted programs like Brain Awareness Week, where students can use their creative presentation skills to engage kids in discussions of neuroscience. I tell my students that this kind of outreach is important for scientists who depend upon public interest to fund their work, and that volunteering in an area related to your field also looks good on your CV.

Last semester's students will soon be participating in an event for high schoolers who are considering an Emory education. They will present their original research projects and answer questions from the visiting students. I haven't heard whether any of them have been motivated to volunteer off campus as a result of the class, but maybe they'll be more inclined to do so next year, when they're allowed to have cars!


Most scientists scoff at the thought of publishing a paper after only a semester's worth of work on a project. (Although, I do know a few lucky grad students who were able to publish the results of their rotation projects!) For an undergraduate, though, a semester-long research project is a substantial achievement, and many of our students are interested in learning how to publish their results. This semester, one student also asked me about publishing a lengthy review-style article that he wrote for a previous class.

I identified a couple of journals in my field that would be appropriate venues for this kind of work. The Journal of Young Investigators publishes scientific research articles, reviews, editorials, and features. They also sponsor a snazzy virtual poster presentation contest:

For students particularly interested in neuroscience, there's also Impulse, an undergraduate journal of neuroscience.

Both of these journals feature peer review by other undergraduates under the supervision of faculty sponsors. While most submissions are eventually accepted, students submitting to the journals will still go through a dialogue with the editors and typically make a round or two of revisions. It's a good introduction to the publication process, and it provides another way for students to get credit for the high level of work that we ask of them in class.


This semester, we're having our upper-level undergraduates write mock funding proposals. Many of the science students have shown an interest in NSF Graduate Research Fellowships or NIH Intramural Research Training Awards. We hope that by asking our students to design research projects and write them up in a grant-style format (including a background and significance section, a research strategy and timeline, and a personal statement), we can prepare them to actually submit these sorts of proposals.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't even know that these funding sources existed. Learning about them will definitely give our students an advantage. But, grant writing is hard, and it has been challenging for me to mentor a diverse group of students who are all at different stages in the research process. Some have already spent years working on a project in an Emory lab, while others aren't sure what kind of graduate program interests them the most (a few haven't even picked an undergraduate major!). I'm trying to set reasonable expectations for my students, given that many of them have never attempted anything like this before. But, I also want to make sure they understand that in order to get a proposal funded, they will have to work hard, revise a lot of drafts, and read more than a handful of primary sources.

I hope that I'll be able to report back later this year with an update about what our students have achieved! I've been putting a lot of effort into teaching (to my adviser's occasional chagrin...), and perhaps my ambitious goals are a result of the newbie's rose-colored glasses. But, I'm having fun. Last week I met with a small group of students to talk about their grant proposals. When class time had run out, several of them stayed late to continue our conversation. One told me that she didn't want to leave because this was her favorite class. I never get that kind of feedback from mice in the lab!


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