5 Tips to Get the Most Out of Four Years of Undergrad Research

May 23, 2019 • by Marc Airhart

We asked graduating seniors from across the college to share their best tips for research success.

Three students in blue lab coats and goggles gather around a computer screen

Five graduating seniors share their tips for getting the most out of undergraduate research. Photo credit: Vivian Abagiu.

So you've been accepted to UT Austin's College of Natural Sciences. You've heard that doing research as an undergraduate will give you a leg up academically and in your career (really, research proves it). But how do you find a research lab to work in? How do you maximize the opportunity to work alongside some of the world's leading scientists and mathematicians? What do you do if you're on the brink of a big discovery, and then an overzealous cleaning crew throws out the colony of slugs it took you three months to raise and train in the lab?

Don't worry. We've got you covered. (OK, maybe not on that last one.)

We asked graduating seniors from across the college to share their best tips for research success.

1. Take charge.

"The most important thing I learned myself was just to take charge and don't be scared," said Katherine Wu, who co-authored published scientific papers in her area of neuroscience. "Dive in to what you want to do." In the College of Natural Sciences, that can be as simple as applying for the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), where you'll learn basic research skills and progress to an independent project in one of dozens of labs on campus, visiting the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science for research ideas related to your major, or simply knocking on professors' doors, or checking in after class, and asking if they have a project you can participate in.

Just don't be discouraged if they say no, recommended André Zepeda, whose work has appeared in the Nature family of journals: "Be persistent. Keep knocking on doors, and you'll find an opportunity."

2. Be honest.

It's OK to let a faculty advisor know what you're still learning.

"As an early undergrad I worried that my lack of advanced coursework would prevent me from contributing in a significant way to the research efforts of the faculty and their research groups. This was a mistake," said math graduate Ariel Barr, who recently won UT's top award for scholarly achievement as an undergraduate. "Professors at UT are very patient about explaining the salient features of their work, so you will rapidly come up to speed."

This is sort of the point of science and math, after all. "Exploring subjects where the answers aren't known is the heart of research," Barr said, "so your 'lack of knowledge' isn't a problem."

"Some people are afraid to ask for research positions because they feel like they haven't done anything yet," observed Aimee Schechter, who co-authored a paper with an astronomer in her time at UT. "The professors know you aren't going to have a super huge resume to send them if you're a sophomore in college. Just be up front about what you know, don't know and what you hope to get out of the experience."

3. Learn from others.

Joining a research team puts you in the middle of many potential mentors and role models—faculty, research scientists, graduate students, peer mentors and sometimes government and industry professionals.

"Everyone around you is really smart and anyone you talk to, you are going to learn something from," said Hadiqa Zafar, who co-authored multiple papers related to her research on cancer. Zafar initially didn't have a plan for after college, but working beside a graduate student, she was inspired to go to graduate school and is now headed for MIT.

Wu originally planned to become a doctor, but working with a clinical researcher testing a treatment for Multiple Sclerosis, she saw patients get immediate relief from very uncomfortable symptoms and decided she wanted to do clinical research, as well as be a physician. "I loved watching her work during her day, and I basically want my career to look like hers," she said. "There's a lot of potential to directly and quickly impact patients' lives through research."

Zepeda found a passion for entrepreneurship by spending time with scientists in UT Austin's Center for Dynamics and Control of Materials who had either started companies or had ideas for new startups. "You find people that are successful in that area," he said. "Listen to them, do what they say, so that in return, you can have some success."

Schechter's research supervisor, professor Caitlin Casey, was a true mentor, coaching her on how to present her research, pushing her to network with future colleagues and grad school representatives, and guiding her through the process of writing a research paper and applying for fellowships and grad schools.

"She made me good at selling myself and my research," Schechter said.

4. Don't give up.

Research is messy. You're going to fail. A lot. When it happens, you have to pick yourself up and dust yourself off.

"You learn about persistence," Zepeda said. "That's a great lesson to learn for life. Understanding that you're going to fail a lot so you can eventually get to your level of success. That's the thing that was most enjoyable."

"One of the most useful things I learned in FRI was to persevere when things aren't working," Zafar said. "You have to show up every day, even when what you did yesterday didn't work too well."

5. Find your best fit.

"Undergrad goes fast," Schechter reflected. "You need a full year or two to really commit to a research project if you want to publish it. So I don't see why you would waste time in a group that you don't like."

So how do you know if it's a good fit?

"Consider whether your PI"—principal investigator—"has time and is willing to mentor you and enjoys mentoring students," Wu said. "Make sure you can see yourself cultivating a good relationship with your PI. Make sure the lab work is something you're interested in, so you'll feel excited and motivated to go to lab."

Zafar agreed: "If you can find something you really like, it's so easy to do well because you're going to come to lab and you're going to go to that class you're interested in, you're going to learn that material, and it's not going to seem like a chore."

Meet Our Student Researchers

Each of the students we interviewed published their research in peer-reviewed journals, which both demonstrates the value of the research to the scientific community and marks an important milestone in their careers.

Ariel Barr (Mathematics), winner of a Mitchell Award for Academic Excellence, used the supercomputers at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to study the properties of atom-thin sheets of materials, which could have applications in energy-efficient, high-temperature superconductors and in quantum computing. She co-authored four papersand presented her work at the annual conferences of the Mathematical Association of America and the American Physical Society.

Aimee Schechter (Astronomy) studied gas outflows from galaxies with professor Caitlin Casey. Their work can help improve simulations of how galaxies, including our own, evolve. She co-authored a paper in Research Notes of the American Astronomical Society. Before that work, she was a member of FRI's White Dwarf Stars research stream.

Katherine Wu (Biology/Pre-Med) worked on two research projects at Houston Methodist Hospital—one on the benefits of listening to music for people recovering from stroke and the other on changes in the brain that result from a treatment for Multiple Sclerosis. She co-authored papers for both projects, including first author on a paper in the International Journal of Neuroscience. For her honor's thesis, she evaluated an improved method of brain mapping.

Hadiqa Zafar (Chemistry) worked with professor Jonathan Sessler on building molecules called porphyrins, which have many potential applications including cleaning up radioactive waste and delivering cancer drugs to targets in the body. She co-authored five published research papers, including one as first author in the Journal of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanines.

André Zepeda (Physics), a first-generation graduate, worked in the lab of professor Elaine Li to create atom-thin sheets of materials that might someday be used for a type of light-based communication that would be hack-proof. The work led him to co-author a paper in the journal Nature Photonics and another in Nature.