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.

Getting an undergraduate research position

  1. Do well in coursework (see above).
  2. Start early looking for a place: the more time you have to devote, the more you can accomplish.
  3. 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."
  4. Impress 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.
  5. Choose a director, a lab, and a project that fit you. Everyone has different styles.

Success in undergraduate research

  1. Personal responsibility - your goal is not to be a technician, but a scientist.
  2. Listen 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.
  3. Keep good records: a meticulous lab notebook is enormously valuable to other people who carry on your work.
  4. Do your own literature work. Your director can’t read every paper on the eight projects s/he has going, although s/he should try.
  5. 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

  1. It’s a lot of fun, and a challenge like real life.
  2. It will probably be the closest faculty mentoring connection you will make.
  3. You will gain an operational understanding of science and research, and respect for how much work lies behind scientific advances.
  4. You may have opportunities to speak at national meetings and publish in the scientific literature.
  5. It should get you your best graduate/medical school letter. But don’t do it for that reason.
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