Undergraduate Research in the Kahn Laboratory
This lab has a tradition of encouraging excellence in undergraduate research.
Between 1995 and 2001, twelve undergraduates have worked in the group, for
1-3 years each, including two current students. Five of the students wrote
senior theses and received departmental Honors (2) or High Honors (3). Eight
have been generously supported by prestigious Howard Hughes Medical Institute
(HHMI) undergraduate research fellowships. Five of the students are in or
have been accepted to medical school or MD/PhD, and most of the rest are still
engaged in science in one way or another.
Currently (Jan. 2002) there is space available for two highly motivated pre-senior
year students. I typically do not take people into the lab until they have
completed organic chemistry, and I have found that students with a GPA less
than ~3.5 tend not to be successful in research in my group. Subject to these
constraints, I like to bring people in as early in their collegiate careers
as possible. I hope and expect that if research is going well students will
work in the lab during the summer and winter breaks. I pay students by the
hour during the breaks, and they receive course credit during the year. HHMI
fellows receive salary and housing allowances.
Here are my personal opinions on how best to succeed at undergraduate research,
in my lab or elsewhere:
Remember, research is harder than course work, but often more rewarding.
- In class, you can expect that there is an answer to any problem you are
given, and that you have been given enough background to find the answer.
In research, neither of these expectations is reasonable.
- In class, other people have previously done essentially exactly what you
are doing, and the professor has adjusted expectations and instructions according
to their experience. In research, you are pushing the envelope, doing things
that no one has done before.
- In research, you have the potential to create knowledge that no one has
ever previously known, and the publication of results is a permanent addition
to the written record of our species.
Getting an undergraduate research position
well in coursework (see above).
early looking for a place: the more time you have to devote, the more you
- Investigate two or three
target labs, for example by looking carefully at their web pages or
published papers. Talk to other students. Don’t send blanket emails to "Dear Professor."
the P.I. (principal investigator) on first contact –
send a customized letter that reflects your reading on the work in the lab, and a C.V. if you have one.
- Choose a director, a lab, and a project that fit you. Everyone has different styles.
Success in undergraduate research
responsibility - your goal is not to be a technician, but a scientist.
to others but try to be independent. Don’t be afraid to ask a lot of
questions, but don’t take the answers as gospel.
good records: a meticulous lab notebook is enormously valuable to other people
who carry on your work.
your own literature work. Your director can’t read every paper on the
eight projects s/he has going, although s/he should try.
- Very important: Don’t
overcommit your time. A research director is much happier to have someone
disappear for a semester with warning, as opposed to without warning. Usually
when a student overcommits, research suffers, as it lacks deadlines and exams.
Sometimes, students spend too much time in lab and their grades suffer. Neither is desirable.
What you get out of undergraduate research
Back to J. Kahn's lab home page.
- It’s a lot of fun, and a challenge like real life.
will probably be the closest faculty mentoring connection you will make.
will gain an operational understanding of science and research, and respect
for how much work lies behind scientific advances.
may have opportunities to speak at national meetings and publish in the scientific literature.
should get you your best graduate/medical school letter. But don’t do
it for that reason.