Six ways to get involved in undergraduate research and why you should

Getting undergraduate students involved in research is part of the mission of the Department of Biochemistry and the University of Wisconsin–Madison as a whole. Finding a laboratory to join that does research you’re interested in can seem daunting — but it shouldn’t. Faculty, advisors, and other students are here to help. Here are six ways any undergraduate can get into research.

1. Get involved early
Photo of Michael Cox
“The best advice I can give to undergraduates is to get involved early. It’s one of the reasons you come to Wisconsin. It gives you the best chance to get through learning the basics of laboratory work and really accomplish something in your time here, be that exploring science, getting publications, or building your science network.” —Biochemistry Professor Mike Cox

2. Do your research and master the ‘can I join’ email

“Don’t just send a generic email saying ‘I like biochemistry. Can I join your lab?’ or ‘I enjoy genetics. Is there space for me?’ to multiple faculty members. Do your research on the lab’s research and write a specific email about an aspect of the research you find interesting. Was there an interesting paper of theirs you read? Did you watch a video of a talk someone from the lab gave? Then ask them to meet with you to discuss it and ask if there is space in their lab for a hard-working undergraduate researcher.

And when you go to the meeting, treat it like a job interview. Come dressed professionally and with questions you’d like to ask them.”  —Kendra Gurnee, biochemistry undergraduate advisor

3. Don’t be worried you won’t like it

“There are many different paths a biochemistry or other science student can take. Seeing if research is something you like is always a good idea. If you like it, you’ve discovered a wonderful career. If you don’t, that is still very valuable. Your undergraduate years are the best time to find this out. You then know you can explore other areas.” —Cox

4. Get some serious science skills

Photo of Kamya Gopal
Undergraduate researcher Kamya Gopal. Photo: Robin Davies.

“It’ll vary a lot from lab to lab but right now I’m working on purifying proteins so I’m working with columns, running gels, using the centrifuge, and much more on my own project. One of the great things about being in a lab is you get to apply the techniques that you learn in class. You also learn how to communicate science with your peers through poster sessions and talking with grad students and postdocs. I know how to talk in language that is accepted by the scientific community so I can make connections.” —Kamya Gopal, undergraduate researcher in the Department of Biochemistry

5. Gain skills you didn’t even think about

“In addition to lab skills, if you look at the top 10 skills employers want, they are all skills you can gain by being in a lab; although they might not seem super obvious at first. For example, being able to develop written reports, using different software, analyzing data, planning, organizing, and prioritizing tasks, and communicating with others are all important. They are skills an employer is going to care about even if you aren’t looking for a job in a research lab.” —Gurnee

Photo of Kendra Gurnee
Biochemistry undergraduate advisor Kendra Gurnee.

6. Don’t be discouraged

“Don’t give up! It might take you a bit to find a lab but the experience will pay off. Make sure you’re taking the right classes and keeping your GPA up. The skills you can gain, like problem solving and troubleshooting, will definitely pay off. Your peers and professor can then write letters of recommendation or give you advice on the best graduate programs for your area.” —Gopal

Departments all across campus have resources to help undergraduate students get involved in research. Biochemistry for example has the Biochemistry Scholars Program, Undergraduate Summer Research Award, and Mary Shine Peterson Award, as well as exciting study abroad programs that get students involved in research. Students can also check out resources from the Biocommons for resources on identifying and obtaining research opportunities, including drop-in peer advising during the semester.