An excellent way for new students to learn about the wide range of research occurring at Washington University is to enroll during their first semester in Biology 181, "Freshman Seminar in Biology," a one-unit course in which different faculty members discuss the current work in their laboratories. The related course Biology 1810 “Freshman Seminar in Imaging Sciences” has a similar format but focuses in depth on biological imaging. The seminar course, Introduction to Problem-Based Learning in Biology (Biol 112), provides training in use of research literature to solve problems; topics change from year to year. Students in the life sciences who wish to participate in research during the academic year may register for Biology 200, "Introduction to Research," if freshmen or sophomores, or Biology 500, "Independent Work," if juniors or seniors. Normally research students register for three units of credit, the equivalent of one course, committing themselves to 9-12 hours of lab work, plus preparation, every week.
There are several ways that Washington University students can get help in finding a research lab. Many gain familiarity with a particular lab as a Federal College Work-Study participant. In addition, individual research interests of the 300+ faculty members in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences are available online (http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/courses/Bio500/mentors.html). Finally, faculty advisers willing to help students identify appropriate faculty mentors are available within each research area (contact the Biology Student Affairs Office for further advice). Participating in research in an area that has sparked one's interest can be the most engaging part of undergraduate study.
The Biology Department's purpose in offering undergraduate research is to allow students to gain experience using the scientific method to solve problems of scientific importance. This experience includes acquiring technical skills, reading and evaluating articles in the scientific literature that are relevant to the project being undertaken, designing and conducting experiments, learning to evaluate experimental data in relation to existing knowledge, and expanding skills in communicating results of research both orally and in writing.
Students in Biol 200/500 conduct projects with defined goals. Often the goals may not be achievable in one semester. Students should have the opportunity to read relevant scientific literature and to receive help evaluating such past research efforts. Students benefit from being expected to give periodic (oral) reports on their research progress to the mentor's research group. The value of the research experience is significantly enhanced by working full time in the summer. In this circumstance, students are supported by fellowships or the mentor's research funds.
Students normally enroll for 3 units of credit. Students should expect to work 9-12 hours/week performing research to earn 3 units. Preparation for lab, data reduction and reading usually require additional time at home. (In this sense at least, the introduction to research is realistic.) Students are cautioned, however, not to become so absorbed in their research that course work is neglected. Single-minded concentration on research is the norm when working in the lab full time in summers.
Students find or are referred to active and productive laboratories, ones in which good work is done and then published. Often, but not invariably, mentors with a productive scientific history will have research grants that allow them to gather a critical mass of post-docs and graduate students who make a crucial contribution to the intellectual life of the research group. However, students are advised to avoid laboratories that are so large that the undergraduate might get lost in the shuffle. It is advisable for students to complete and to submit their plans for independent study to the Biology Student Affairs Office (Jeanette Goldfarb 105) as part of the preregistration (at the end of the semester before the semester for which they seek Biol 200 or Biol 500 credit). Forms may be obtained in the Biology Student Affairs Office. Reduced credit can be obtained for work started within the semester if approved by Professor Stein. Extra time should be allowed for review of any work involving pathogens; such review must be completed before the student begins work.
Typically a student will start Biol 500 in the junior year, often in the spring, although an increasing number of students start earlier, some as early as their first year (Biol 200). Much of the first semester consists of learning techniques and mastering the background and intellectual context of the ongoing research in the laboratory. We ask that the student be given material to read and then report back to the mentor. Many mentors find a presentation by the student to be the best procedure. In addition, students should participate in lab meetings and journal club and should be asked to present at appropriate intervals. By the end of the first or second semester the student should have sufficient mastery of techniques and intellectual context to participate in developing an experimental plan, which will be the heart of the Biol 500 project. The Biology Department recommends that the student be asked for a brief formal report either at times dictated by the rhythm of the work or at the end of the semester. The student should be required to think hard about what (s)he has been doing, which is, of course, an extremely useful experience.
Usually students continue in Biol 500 for at least 3 semesters. In addition, they often have either fellowships or paying jobs in the laboratory during the summer. This support allows the student to spend full time on research.
Note that in addition to Biol 200/500, students can gain lab experience under General Studies 400 (Laboratory Assistant). Work done by a Biol 200 and 500 student is either in preparation for undertaking an independent research project or is in direct pursuit of the research objective. There are occasions when a student would prefer to be "another pair of hands" while taking no independent responsibility for the scientific work. That is a legitimate experience and is provided by General Studies 400. See http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/courses/BIO500/bio500.html for additional information.
Summer Research Opportunities
Undergraduate research fellowship programs provide intensive and rewarding research experiences for more than 40 Washington University students by providing financial support (living expenses plus a stipend) for 10-12 weeks of research during the summer. Summer fellowships are available in plant biology at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, and in field biology at the Tyson Research Center. A more general Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program supported by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute includes all of the scientific interests of members of the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.
In the latter program, students have worked on such diverse topics as a behavioral study of Sceloporus undulatus (fence lizard), DNA sequencing of postulated senescence genes of Volvox, development of an in vitro transcription system from plants, analysis of a simple bacterial model for cystic fibrosis, and analysis of the role of axonal and dendritic arborization in the development of complex neurocircuits, among many others.
All summer programs welcome students new to research as well as those who already have research experience. The major emphasis of these programs is the research experience in the lab and/or field, but scholars also participate in weekly discussion sessions with graduate students and faculty on current research activities and literature, as well as a number of social events. Each program concludes with a one-day symposium at which all participants report on their summer research accomplishments through oral or poster presentations. Further information and application materials for these programs are available online at http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/research.html. Applications are due right before spring break.
In addition to students supported by these summer programs, many other Washington University undergraduates participate in full-time summer research with faculty members with whom they have begun research during the academic year. Usually such students receive support from their mentor's research grants. Summer research may lead to an honors thesis and co-authorship of research publications. Many students who participate find their summer research experience particularly rewarding and useful in developing career interests and plans.
Check http://www.nslc.wustl.edu/courses/Bio500/mentors.html for a listing of possible research mentors.