Training to be a Scientist

When I was an undergrad, I haphazardly entered science. During my junior year after a study abroad trip, I was inspired to be a scientist, yet did not how to become one. I talked to my appointed undergraduate advisor, and he recommended I volunteer in a research lab on campus. I was really surprised because I didn’t even know about these opportunities, even though I had already majored in biology (to be a doctor). Unlike what I would see in graduate school, there were no advertisements, no capstone classes, and certainly no undergraduate-led research. I took my advisor’s suggestion and contacted labs that were closest to my interests in ecology and behavior and someone let me in.

The lab I volunteered in was investigating sexual selection in flour beetles. I had just come back from a study abroad experience in Kenya that piqued my interest in a career in science. This was going to be a big change from where I was and what I wanted to study in my career, but I was really grateful to get this experience – work in a lab and get real research experience. The postdoc I was working with had me read papers to understand the methods and research, but largely my obligations were running PCR and gels. Sometimes I just washed lab dishes.

I was grateful to have that opportunity, and it definitely gave me a leg up for the next position. Now, having gone through graduate school and mentoring undergraduates, I have noticed a huge change in experiences. Undergraduates are encouraged to have their own research project, present findings at conferences, and for some, even publish papers.

What I fear from this new system is that undergraduates will get a false sense of what science is really like. Science is hard. Data collection and entry takes a lot of time and work. Science is repetitive. Because undergraduates are encouraged to have their own projects, they need to conduct one that can be done in a semester (time constraint because of class credit). They are therefore handed a project and may not understand all of the prior research, work, and testing that went into it. They may also get the false sense that research can easily be done in a semester, which is especially misleading in my field, ecology.

More importantly, they are missing out on the hardest part of science – What should I study? I was not given this experience either and in graduate school, this was the hardest part. What questions should I ask? What questions can I answer (and given the time, money, and logistical constraints I have)? What questions have not been answered? What questions are important? Too often we jump right into the research stage which involves a lot of “doing” science, but deprives the undergraduate of the “thinking” of science experience, which will ultimately better prepare them to be a researcher.

Another important part, although less fun, is redundancy. In order to do science, you need to collect a large amount of data, which takes time in processing some way. I just finished working on a project where a team of undergrads and myself had to score thousands of photos of deer behavior, which took almost six months of constant attention. When identifying elephants for my dissertation research, it took me at least 30 minutes per elephant and I had hundreds of groups. Although looking at elephants is super fun, it eventually gets redundant and tedious. The skill of collecting and processing data requires patience, persistence, and attention to detail. Many of the semester-length projects are too short to understand the amount of redundancy.

Finally, the projects undergraduates take on often involve methods and analysis well established that can be easily taught. As a graduate student, your research will have many components outside of advisor’s expertise, making it essential for you to learn how to conduct analyses on your own. If you have a research project and are guided every step, you will not experience the (sometimes severe) frustration of having to figure it out for yourself, and therefore think (incorrectly) that graduate school may be a similar experience. Additionally, science is constantly evolving, and given the state of technology and computing powers, it is moving faster than ever. Methods and analyses are constantly being updated and improved upon making it necessary to at least keep abreast, but better to lead the field.

Don’t get me wrong – I am definitely in support of undergraduates getting research experiences, even take ownership of a project. What I am in not support of is a rushed process. If undergraduates are hasty in semester projects, taught that science can be done successfully in 3-4 months with a product (poster, but sometimes even papers), I fear they will get a false sense of what science is. Science is not an easy, linear process. It is often stop and go, requires years, often decades of work, time, and failure.

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