10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting Into Undergraduate Research

By Fariha Fardin, OUR Peer Research Ambassador

Student Research Blog, 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Getting Into Undergraduate Research. By PRA Fariha.Being involved with research is an invaluable opportunity that I think everyone should take advantage of during their undergraduate years. I can definitely say that being involved in undergraduate research has been transformative for me academically, but also honed my skills and set my career trajectory on a promising path. As I reflect on my own experiences, here are ten insights I wish I had known before embarking on this exciting endeavor (in no particular order):

 1)  The Power of Inquiry

The old adage “Don’t be afraid to ask questions” holds true, though I’ll admit even I hesitated. It can be very intimidating when you’re surrounded by graduate students and professors who are very clearly extremely knowledgeable and busy. However, overcoming that intimidation and seeking clarification can open up opportunities for deeper understanding and more analytical thinking.

2)  Elevate Your Lab Notebook

While it may seem like a given, maintaining a meticulous lab notebook is paramount. Beyond training, carry it everywhere. Recording the smallest details, like precise reagent measurements, and tips from other grad students not only reinforces your attentiveness but also becomes a valuable resource in moments of experimentation hurdles. I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve looked back at my lab notebook to see how I conducted an experiment before or what calculations I did to make a certain solution, which leads me to my next point…

3)  The Formula That Matters: C1*V1=C2*V2

This simple equation, seemingly reminiscent of BIO 1107 lab, evolves into a fundamental tool in research. Dilutions, solution making, etc- it finds application across diverse experiments. Make sure you really know how to use it outside of a word problem -mastering it is a hallmark of a prepared researcher. I’ve even had a grad student tell me that she is going to get it tattooed on herself.

4)  Read! Read! Read!

In the world of research, the seemingly mundane act of reading becomes your secret to success. No matter the type of lab or research you’re in, delving into scientific papers is your direct pathway to understanding. Science is ever evolving, a canvas painted with new breakthroughs. To truly grasp your research, you must dive into relevant papers, even beyond your immediate scope. Don’t merely perform experiments; expand your comprehension. Ask your grad student mentors or your PI for foundational papers to start and then expand your knowledge. Reading scientific papers also helps you become a better writer – which comes in handy when writing proposals for grants and funding.

5)  Allocate Time Wisely: Balancing Lab and Beyond

Amidst the whirlwind of college life, carving out time for research stands as a vital piece of the puzzle. Research is not only confined to the hours at which you are at the lab, but extends beyond those walls. Balancing academic obligations, extracurriculars, and social life can be a juggling act. Yet, ensuring a dedicated slot for research, both within and outside the lab, is non-negotiable. Research isn’t confined to equipment and experiments; it’s a mindset that thrives even when you’re distanced from the lab bench. Taking time to reflect on your lab work and dedicating moments to read, learn, and contemplate how to enhance your skills is pivotal. Remember, it’s not about merely checking boxes; it’s about fostering an environment where your research can flourish.

6)  Engage with the Graduate Students

Don’t underestimate the power of socializing with graduate students – they, too, were once college students. Through casual conversations, you can glean diverse perspectives on various aspects of the laboratory. If research is part of your future goals, ask them about their daily routines, research paths, and journeys to current positions. Cultivating and nurturing these relationships offers advantages that extend beyond the immediate context. Maintaining favorable rapport with graduate students can result in a reservoir of knowledge sharing. Often, they possess practical insights, ranging from experimental techniques and troubleshooting to the lending of resources such as reagents. These interactions hold the potential to foster collaborative growth, opening doors to productive partnerships that transcend formal research boundaries.

7)  Foster a Positive Relationship with Your PI

Your Principal Investigator (PI) holds immense significance throughout your undergraduate journey. Choosing a PI aligned with your goals and mentorship needs is essential. Regular interactions with your PI offer advice, progress sharing, and feedback. This connection aligns you with research goals, enriches project understanding, and leads to a rewarding experience. Moreover, your PI can open doors to future connections and provide valuable recommendation letters, enhancing opportunities like OUR funding.

8)  Navigating Challenging Lab Days 

Research isn’t immune to rough patches. There will be days when it feels like you’re working on the wrong side of the lab bench- experiments falter, glassware shatters, and self-doubt creeps in. Yet, in the face of these isolated setbacks, resist the urge to let them eclipse the entirety of your research journey. It’s worth acknowledging that research is no stranger to failure; it’s an integral part of the process. So stay focused, resilient, and remember that perseverance often paves the way for breakthroughs.

9)  Leverage the Abundance of OUR Resources & Opportunities

Within the realm of undergraduate research, the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) stands as a treasure trove. Remarkable resources and avenues await exploration. For those eager to delve into research, I wholeheartedly recommend immersing yourself in the extensive UConn OUR website. A plethora of funding possibilities beckons, opening doors to fuel your research aspirations. Additionally, don’t overlook the value of Peer Research Ambassadors. If you’re navigating the path into research or searching for a compatible lab, their assistance proves invaluable. Personally, I didn’t tap into this resource, but I realize now the potential it held for aligning me with a research endeavor that resonated with my passions and interests.

10)  Set Healthy Boundaries

Balancing research with personal life requires clear boundaries. Don’t hesitate to ask for more responsibilities, but also be honest about your capacity. Effective communication with grad student mentors and your PI is essential. After all, your life extends beyond the lab, and fostering a healthy balance ensures sustained progress.

As you embark upon the exciting journey of undergraduate research, bear in mind that every challenge holds the potential to become a valuable lesson, and each discovery acts as a stepping-stone that paves the way for your personal and academic evolution. Keep sight of the broader panorama—your intentions, your values, and the intrinsic joy of learning and expanding through research. Cherish each step along the way, as you shape the mosaic of your growth and uncover the myriad possibilities that lie ahead.

Fariha is a junior majoring in Molecular & Cell Biology and minoring in Bioinformatics. Click here to learn more about Fariha.