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The Black Hole

Look Mom, I can do PCR! Benefits and drawbacks of formal undergraduate research programs


Quick Hit:  Earlier this week, I published a blog entry with the Stem Cell Network on scientists holding back the details of their data prior to publication entitled: The Royal Society and the philosophy of openness: Are we moving backwards? As it overlaps with many of the themes on this site, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to draw people’s attention to it.

Look Mom, I can do PCR!  Benefits and Drawbacks of Formal Undergraduate Research Programs

As a follow-up to my “not simply lab monkeys” post, I felt that a closer look at undergraduate science training was warranted.  A much discussed topic in our original group was the undergraduate experience (specifically how well the various universities equip their students for graduate school) and one hot button topic was whether or not a formal research component (i.e.: 16 month co-op projects) free from course work is the way to go.  This post will focus first on the drawbacks and then the benefits to such formal programs and the potential impact on the training environment as a whole.

Before writing this post, I should point out two articles that I found particularly informative to help consolidate some of the thoughts that our group tossed about a few years back:
1.   Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences (Russell et al., 2007 Science)
2.  Undergraduate Research Experiences Support Science Career Decisions and Active Learning (Lopatto et al., 2007 CBE Life Sci Educ)

Drawbacks: Length of time, waste of time, and alternatives

  1. One thing that cannot be ignored in this whole discussion is that formal research programs that do not involve course work extend the length of the degree (typically by 12-16 months) in order to give students a “hands on” research stint.  If you’ve known for a while that you want to pursue an academic research career, you are now faced with two issues:  1) you don’t need to suss out “lab research” to know that you want to do it and 2) there will be a whole cohort of contemporaries (applying to do MSc’s and PhDs in the same labs as you) who will have acquired “practical lab skills”, the latter of which will make it difficult to compete against.  The fact that you’re a year younger/ahead will matter very little.  Individual concerns aside, the salient comparison that needs to be made is to the first year post graduation and whether or not the interlude year of mid-degree research is more valuable than simply “doing something” after the undergraduate degree.
  2. The research terms are often broken up into multiple chunks in order to get a sense of multiple lab environments (industrial, academic, hospital, etc) meaning that students will often rotate from lab to lab for short periods of weeks or months.  Unless the research supervisor has put alot of thought into how these weeks/months will run, there is a reasonable chance that the student will end up doing lab monkey work, not understanding anything about the field, and coming away with a very negative impression of what lab research is all about.  Not to be discounted, is the concomitant waste of time that this represents for the supervisor(s) if the research period is too short to be productive.
  3. Nobody will argue that “research experience” is bad, but perhaps there are other ways of obtaining it and such ways even act as part of the selection process for pursuing a PhD.  Before formal co-op programs, many students across the country found ways of getting their feet wet in laboratories, participating in (and occassionally driving) research projects and these typically take place in the summers, on top of the class schedule, etc.

Arguably, though, the formal undergraduate research programs make these types of experiences more accessible than simply those lucky enough to squeeze into a lab via an NSERC URSA or something similar and this is worth consideration.
Benefits:  Role Models, Focus, Active Learning, Hands-on Experience, and (of course) possible publications

  1. In my mind, the single biggest benefit of an undergraduate student doing research in the lab is the exposure it gives them to what graduate school and academic science are really all about.  Undergraduate programs are typically terrible at preparing students for this and formal research programs are likely a step in the right direction.  Importantly, it provides ready access to role models for academic life (graduate students, postdocs, and professors) in an informal (i.e.: non-course based) setting.
  2. Research often takes much longer than anticipated and often presents psychological challenges that require focused determination to slog through.  This is something that is remarkably unavailable to senior level undergraduates who are thinly spread across several courses and are typically masters of diversification (sometimes read as procrastination).  The 12-16 month focused period of research has the potential to minimize these distractions.
  3. Though I did not do a co-op program, I was fortunate enough to do research in a lab in the summer between years 3 and 4 and then part time throughout year 4.  During my 4th year, classes were a completely different ballgame where I was turned onto the topic area, felt that the material was relevant, and would certainly agree with David Lopatto’s article which notes that over 80% of undergraduates involved in research reported a moderate to very large increase in independence and active learning. Whether this was due to undertaking research in the summer as Lopatto would suggest, or finally narrowing down my own interests in science and moving into smaller more focused classes I cannot say for sure, but I definitely became a more active learner.
  4. One of the questions that always gets discussed when considering the quality of a science based undergraduate is “how much practical lab experience does a student obtain?”  Certainly leaps and bounds beyond the 1970s-designed chemistry labs of blue liquid + green liquid = pink liquid, the undergraduate research programs give a much better practical hands on skill set that can be useful to those that pursue academic science as well as those that do not.
  5. The final perceived boon for those doing undergraduate research is the one that the science community would say is most important and is the one I bin in this category of benefits with the most trepidation – publications.  It seems that just as academic hopefuls at the postdoc stage are worried about their “cell science or nature” paper, undergraduates looking for fellowships (or to attend medical school) are desperately hoping to be middle author on their mentor’s paper(s).  I contend that this type of jockeying is going to get us into trouble soon and make the early stages of scienctific “success” much more about the politics of squeezing into a paper and much less about original thought and independence.

In the end, I think decision-makers need to ask what the purpose of creating undergraduate research programs really is:  1) Getting students to make better decisions about their own careers?  2) Getting more hands (read cheap labour) into medical science labs?  3) Enriching the learning experience to include practical knowledge in addition to theory?

…or is there something else?  Maybe the formal undergraduate research program is the poor man’s MSc, and universities are simply trying add another year to the undergraduate experience in order to further delay graduations and to appear innovative and cutting edge with their approaches to teaching and learning…

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Roxanne / March 4, 2011 at 01:13

    In regards to PCR, we are currently featuring a variety of articles on our blog about the subject. Take a look.

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