Diving into undergraduate research at U.Va.

Qualifications, approaches, and resources for students seeking research involvement

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The Center for Undergraduate Excellence, housed in the Harrison Institute and Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, aims to assist undergraduate research with grants.

Marshall Bronfin | Cavalier Daily

As a research university, one of the main missions of the University is to promote and sustain both faculty- and student-lead research. According to the Student Experiences in the Research University (SERU) survey, the majority of University students participate in some sort of research experience by the time they graduate. For those hoping to pursue a degree in one or more of the sciences, laboratory coursework or independent research is often required.

Undergraduates of all years get involved in research. Some students choose to get involved as early as their first year.

“Any time is okay to start in research,” Director of Undergraduate Research Opportunities Brian Cullaty said. “There are certainly advantages to getting involved as a first-year. Some faculty like recruiting first-year students to work with them because if a student can continue with them for all four years, by the time they get to be a third- and fourth- year, they’re able to do things that a graduate student can do.”

Additionally, there are benefits to beginning research later on, as third- or fourth-year students, as well.

“As a fourth-year student, you’re going to be further along in your coursework. You may even have taken some research methods courses, depending on what your major is,” Cullaty said. “So at that point you can be valuable to a faculty member as well because you’re bringing some skills to the table that you may not have had as a first-year.”

Regardless of when students choose to participate in research, laboratory skills training and scientific projects require time commitment and mental dedication.

“Research can take up a ton of time, which can be daunting when you are still adapting to college life,” second year Samuel Mogen said in an email statement. “As with most people, my goals and aspirations have evolved quite a bit over my brief time at UVa. I didn’t want to commit to a research group/project too early and end up being unhappy working on it, so I waited until I found something that really excited me.”

Qualifications for students seeking research involvement vary from professor to professor. Some laboratories hire based on academic year, only selecting first-year students so that they can be comprehensively trained over time, or solely accepting third-year students for their wider range of scientific curriculum experience. Other professors may require prerequisite coursework.

“I require some computational experience. We have a class in the Physics Department called ‘Fundamentals of Scientific Computing,’” Associate Professor of Physics Robert Group said in an email statement. “I require students to have taken that, or have a strong computational background from other experiences.”

Principal Investigators may not have specific scientific requirements when hiring. Instead, they may be seeking students solely on the basis of enthusiasm and dedication for the topic of research.

“I always look for passion as my number one characteristic,” Associate Dean of Graduate and Medical Scientist Programs and Professor at the Medical School Amy Bouton said. “I want to see a student who is really excited about scientific discovery and I like for the student to be able to sort of show me that passion in their writing or when they first approach me to ask if they can potentially talk to me about research in my lab.”

When applying for research opportunities, the most common way students to contact professors or faculty members is through email. The email may be thought of as similar to a cover letter and typically should include information about the student’s own interests and how they align with the faculty member’s work, the student’s skills and previous coursework related to the research topic, a request to set up an appointment to speak further, and an attached resume.

However, Principal Investigators – leaders of research studies or laboratories – receive numerous email queries per semester, many of which they cannot accommodate.

According to Bouton, emails from students who have had previous research experience, are able to devote ample time to the lab, and demonstrate profound interest in scientific investigation tend to stand out amongst the many messages she receives.

Cullaty identifies an option for students who do not obtain immediate responses.

“One thing that students often do is, if they don’t get a response to their email, they just kind of let it go,” Cullaty said. “But it’s perfectly normal to follow up on an email, too, if you don’t hear back right away.”

Various resources are available for students seeking more knowledge on research opportunities. Of these, the Undergraduate Research Network (URN), a student-run organization with specialized committees, encourages and promotes undergraduate research at the University.

“The Undergraduate Research Network (URN) is a great resource for students looking to get involved in research in the future!” Mogen said. “I am an officer on the Workshops committee and our primary job is to develop programming to help people that want to get involved in research and those already involved … Next year, a new program called URN fellows is being launched that will have cohorts of students at different places in their research careers meet and receive guidance. For those looking to join URN, we accept applications for Officers every semester.”

In addition, the URN has created the Undergraduate Novel Learning Experience and Scientific Hands-on (UNLEASH), a web system that matches undergraduate students at the University to faculty members accepting researchers.

“What the Undergraduate Research Network is doing is using UNLEASH to put descriptions of faculty research on that site,” Cullaty said. “Then students can fill out an application if they are interested in working with a particular faculty member who is on the UNLEASH website, and then their application will be forwarded to that faculty member, so the faculty member can choose or select the students he or she would like to talk to further about joining their research project.”

However, UNLEASH is not comprehensive of all faculty conducting research at the University. As such, another means to find research opportunities is by searching on the internet for professors in departments that align with students’ own interests, then reaching out to them by email.

Outside of faculty-lead research projects, students can also partake in independent studies funded by research grants.

“Opportunities like the DoubleHoo grant and many research awards, which can be internal to U.Va. or external, that are available to undergraduates here are terrific, because they give the students things to work towards in terms of having an opportunity to do some independent research,” Bouton said.

A list of undergraduate research grants can be found on the Center for Undergraduate Excellence website.

According to Cullaty, participating in undergraduate research not only adds flare to a resume, but improves a student’s analytical thinking abilities, independent initiative, and teamwork skills.

“I think it’s a great way to compliment what you’re learning in the classroom,” Cullaty said. “What you’re doing outside of class relates to what you’re learning in class, and that helps improve the learning process and it makes you even more engaged in, more excited about what you’re learning, which makes your undergraduate experience that much better.”

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