If you build it, will they come? Reflections on working with undergraduate researchers

by Nathaniel Grove

It has now been a little over three years since I accepted my current position at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.  It was a time filled with great excitement, and concurrently, great stress and anxiety.  One of my recurring nightmares involved research: sure, I had all of these big ideas – and perhaps even a notion or two about how to pursue them – but would anyone actually be interested in working with me to help execute those plans?  Three years later, it has been gratifying to see many of my fears allayed, but the build up of my research group certainly wasn’t something that happened overnight, and in the process, I have come to rely heavily on the involvement of undergraduate researchers.  Although many of us are passionate about undergraduate education and are equally keen to involve undergraduate students in our research, it has been my experience that as a group, undergraduates have very different research needs and goals than their graduate student counterparts.  What I offer below are some reflections on my experiences working with undergraduate research students.

Think about how to “sell” your research.  People often speak about having an elevator pitch, a short summary of your research that can be quickly and concisely conveyed to casual acquaintances.  When initially interacting with potential undergraduate researchers, I often find it helpful to have an even simpler description prepared – one single sentence that passes the “Thanksgiving Table Test,” a statement that anyone can understand and that immediately conveys the importance of the research to a non-chemistry audience (relatives seated around the dinner table at Thanksgiving, for example).  Instead of telling potential research students that he is interested in studying the chemistry of air-sea exchange processes, one of my colleagues instead tells students he is interested in better understanding the chemistry related to global warming.  Although both are accurate descriptors of the phenomena he researches, one is immediately relatable and emphasizes just how important the work truly is.

Spend some time at the beginning getting to know potential researchers and clearly articulate your expectations before agreeing to anything.  The first time I received an email from a student asking if spots were available in my group, I was ecstatic; obviously my fears of having to do all of the research myself were unfounded.  When I actually met with her, however, I was surprised to see how little she knew about what I did.  When I asked her what she hoped to gain from working in my group, she told me she was planning to use the knowledge and skills she gained to cure cancer.  While there are faculty in my department that are working towards those ends, my research clearly did not fit the bill!  So, take some time to get to know your potential researchers.  What do they expect to learn from their experiences?  What special skills/knowledge can they bring to the table? How much time do they expect to spend working on research each week? How many semesters do they anticipate doing research with you?  At the same time, do not forget about your new colleagues: they can be invaluable sources of information about how suitable some students may be to conducting independent research.   

Projects for undergraduate researchers must be carefully structured. Under the right conditions, undergraduate researchers can be just as productive as graduate students; however, this is dependent upon a carefully structured research experience.  Because of the nature of their schedules which often makes it difficult to devote large amounts of uninterrupted time to research, and the fact that many undergraduates may not get involved in research until their junior or senior years, I have found it helpful to take a larger, more complex project and break it up into smaller, modular pieces with defined starting and ending points.  In other words, a project that might normally be given to a single graduate student to work on over the course of several years, may instead be accomplished by several undergraduate students working alone or in small groups over the same period of time.  It then becomes my responsibility to pull the individual pieces together at the end of the process.

Keep your eyes (and ears) open and don’t be afraid to start recruiting early.  Many of us in the CER community teach introductory-level chemistry courses – either general chemistry or organic chemistry.  These courses can be wonderful sources of undergraduate researchers.  It has been my experience that some of my colleagues are hesitant to accept students into their research groups until much later in their academic careers.  The argument goes that to be successful researchers, students need robust content knowledge to draw upon, and there is certainly something to be said about that.  At the same time, however, the students that I have recruited directly from my general chemistry courses have been among the best and are typically quite excited about the opportunity to engage in research.  Although it takes time and effort to “fill in the gaps” in their background, my students have been very receptive to doing so, and once complete, I have students who have spent or will spend 2.5 – 3 years conducting research in my group.  Such long-term experience is priceless and well worth the initial investment in time and resources.   

Look around for resources available for undergraduate research at your institution.  At almost all of the institutions I have been associated with, some level of funding has been available to support undergraduate students as they go about conducting their research.  Some institutions may provide money to purchase supplies; others may provide travel funds to present the research at meetings or conferences.  If you are lucky, your institution may provide both!  Once you have agreed to have undergraduate students work with you, it is never a bad idea to ask around and see if any of these funding options are available to you and your students.  Also keep in mind that many local ACS sections also provide travel assistance for students to travel to regional and national ACS meetings.  

Above all, be patient.   These are undergraduate students we are talking about, and on occasion even the most mature are going to act like it!  There will be times when they do not finish work within the requested timeframe or when they will email you at 2:30 am the night before your weekly meeting with questions because they did not listen closely enough the first time you explained how you wanted that statistical analysis completed.  Take a deep breath and remember what it was like when you were in their shoes not all that long ago. 

Nathaniel Grove
Assistant Professor of Chemistry
General Chemistry Coordinator
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of North Carolina Wilmington