The Daily Pennsylvanian is a student-run nonprofit.

Please support us by disabling your ad blocker on our site.

By the time spring semester of my freshman year began, I already knew I wanted to do laboratory research that summer. Choosing to work in a lab was the easy part. But choosing the lab was impossible.

I had some clues to help me narrow down my search: no organic chemistry, since I had yet to take the lab for the course. No physics, since I had a hard enough time understanding it in class. I checked countless departmental homepages, eventually e-mailing more than 10 principal investigators (PIs) and using eeny-meeny-miny-moe to choose a lab.

There is a more efficient way to search for labs: the Research Directory on the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships website. But not every lab with an opening is listed, and many of the descriptions are too complicated or do not accurately reflect the lab’s working environment.

Penn needs to mentor its aspiring researchers more effectively, because listing all the information on a website is not enough. The University should organize a seminar series that helps students decide which labs to join.

These seminars could meet several times over the course of the semester and be specific to departments. For example, a biology seminar could give an overview of different model organisms and diseases. The lecturer could use research papers to spark interest in laboratory problems, keeping the seminar focused on what specific labs at Penn are investigating. And, of course, the seminars would address the unmentionables of picking labs: Is the PI someone with whom you would enjoy working? Will you be washing dishes or performing research? These seminars would help students discover what questions excite them, allowing them to focus on research as problem solving rather than as another bullet point on our resumes.

Efforts have already been made in this direction. Wallace Genser, associate director for Undergraduate Research, has been organizing preceptorials that call for “more faculty outreach from CURF than [they]’ve had before.” One such preceptorial is “Getting Started in Research in Wharton, PPE and Economics,” in which he brings in “faculty to talk very briefly about what they do in a classroom as opposed to a lab setting … They talk about what they look for in student researchers and give advice for how students can get involved,” he said. Another preceptorial is “Research Open House in Penn Biomedical Laboratories,” in which students conduct tours of their labs, introduce other students to their PIs and discuss their research.

The White Paper on Undergraduate Education recently published by the Student Committee on Undergraduate Education also extensively addressed undergraduate research. According to SCUE Chairman Charles Gray, a College and Wharton sophomore and former Daily Pennsylvanian columnist, “what we want to do is have a course that freshmen can take that’s part of the seminar system. It will be focused on a question in a specific area, but it will also be about researching that specific area … The idea is to expose people to research who may not have any [mentoring] at all.”

Although CURF and SCUE’s initiatives are commendable, they have their disadvantages. Most students take preceptorials for fun, and so students would be hard pressed to register for one that is not Cheese Tasting or Clay Wheel Throwing. Also, a class dedicated to exposing freshmen to research is limiting in the number of students who can enroll.

Having worked on and off in labs since freshman year, I have found the lab to be indispensable to a well-rounded education. After all, the lab forced me into an extreme learning curve, one in which my mistakes have direct consequences that I could see and touch. All students should know what it feels like to not only receive knowledge but also to add to it, which is why I hope to see research opportunities fleshed out for as many people as possible.

Cyndi Chung is a College senior from Toms River, N.J. Her e-mail address is Slip of the Chung appears on alternate Mondays.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.