Students at work in Microbio 551
Professor Paustian consulting with a student about their work.
Testing a DNA sample's quality using the nanodrop
Material ready for class
Students at work in Microbio 102
Reading tests in Micorbio 102
Students at work in Microbio 102

Research

A research experience in a laboratory is one of the best ways to explore and understand the field of science. You will meet the scientists that actually do the work and participate in cutting-edge research that changes people’s lives. We know that finding a research lab can be intimidating. This page hopes to demystify the process, help you feel more confident, and get you at the lab bench as soon as possible.

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Fast facts before you begin

The UW is one of the top-funded universities in the world.  The Bacteriology faculty and trainers have active labs that bring in millions of dollars. What that means is that you have a lot of choices.

Being in a research laboratory is a privilege. Yes, you do contribute to the lab’s overall goals, but it takes time to learn the proper approach to lab work: designing experiments, adding controls, practicing the techniques necessary, collecting data, taking careful notes, and analyzing it afterward. You use up materials as you are learning and making mistakes. And yep, you’re gonna make mistakes. The professor and their lab will be investing time and energy into you. But they have made the decision that training you is worthwhile.

Undergraduate research positions in laboratories are highly competitive. There are many students hoping to do research at UW, and only a limited number of spots. But the good news is there are other places to do research outside the classic research laboratory.

Dr. Jon Roll has an international Thailand research program.

The Food Research Institute (also housed in MSB) has a summer research experience.

Promega in the Madison area has a summer internship program. Other biotech companies might also.

 

Learning about a mentor

Approach this task with care. The more time you spend preparing before you contact a mentor, the more likely that you will have success. Think deeply about what research area interests you. But also realize the subject is not that important. Remember, you are trying to learn how to be a scientist. You can learn that in many different laboratories.

There are a number of ways you can find potential labs. One method is to talk to faculty, teaching assistants, or your academic advisor. A professor or teaching assistant in one of your classes may be looking for undergraduate research assistants. Your academic advisor may also know of opportunities in various laboratories.

Another way you can search for a mentor is to find departments that sound interesting and then read through the faculty web pages within those departments. There are hundreds of laboratories on campus doing microbiology-related research. The first place to start is with the Department of Bacteriology, the home of the Microbiology major. However, many other laboratories research microorganisms, and it doesn’t have to be focused solely on bacteria. There are hundreds of laboratories at UW doing all sorts of important work. As you browse through these pages, take the time to carefully read the descriptions of the research that interests you and make a list of faculty to contact. Here is a list of departments and their web pages you can look through.

Bacteriology
Plant Pathology
Biochemistry
Genetics
Botony
Entomology
Oncology
The Medical School
Chemistry
You can find even more training programs listed at the graduate school

Learn about your potential laboratories

Beyond the description listed on the faculty page, many, but not all, laboratories will have their own website. It will almost always be linked to from the faculty page. These lab websites are a great source of information for you to learn about the lab and to see if it’s a good fit for you.

As you look at the faculty description of their research, it is very likely you will see citations. Look up a citation or two from these description pages. They will always list their most recent or most important findings. Take the time to read the paper. Have patience. Scientific writing is very technical. You cannot skim it like you would a news article or a web page. Take notes as you read that summarize what you think each part means. There is going to be jargon you don’t understand. Take the time to figure it out, and if you get stuck, ask a professor or TA for help. We want you to succeed too! As you are reading, look to formulate a good question about the work.

  • What are the next steps?
  • Is there a figure or data presented that you want to know more about?
  • Are there interpretations of the data that you are curious about?
  • Or anything else.

When you are done, you should have a paper full of notes that you took and a few questions.

Also, spend some time thinking about why you want to work in a research laboratory. What are your goals from doing this work, and why would you make a great addition to the laboratories you are hoping to join? You need to convince these labs that you are the best choice out of the dozens of students that approach them.

Approach the laboratory

A good way to approach a laboratory is at a seminar. Look for a faculty member or a graduate student from the lab who will be giving a seminar. Go to that seminar, take good notes, and afterward, go up and ask a question of the speaker. After your question is answered, ask a follow-up if you can think of one. At some point, inquire if the lab is taking on new students and how you would be very interested in working in the laboratory.

A seminar opportunity may not be available. Another option is to stop by the lab. Yeah, I know this can be terrifying, but scientists are people too. They don’t bite! Ask to talk to a graduate student. Ideally, one that was on the paper you researched. Be upfront about why you are there, but also show your interest by asking about the paper and the work that went into it.

Another option, which is also a good way to start, is to write a carefully crafted email to the laboratory. You can address the PI or the graduate student who is an author of the paper and still in the laboratory. Here are some tips for composing your Email:

  • Make it short. Scientists are busy people.
  • Be upfront about your interest in working in the lab.
  • Mention the paper that you read and why you would be interested in working on the subject.
  • Sell yourself! Remember the reasons you think you would be a great candidate to be in the lab.
  • If your Email doesn’t have a response in a week, then go to the laboratory in person.

Don’t be disappointed if the answer is no. The laboratory may not have the time or funds to take on another undergraduate researcher. Or you may not be a good fit for that laboratory. It is fine to analyze why you might have been unsuccessful, but many times it’s not anything you did. Go on to the next potential laboratory and start the process again. If you are persistent, chances are good that you will find yourself a home.

Good luck!

Great ways to make sure no one wants you in their laboratory

I have told you all the things to do to help you get into a research laboratory. You may also find it helpful to know the things you should not do!

Being too casual in your communications. Treat this like you are applying for a job. Have a professional demeanor and treat all parties with respect.

Sending too short or too long an email. You don’t want to waste your target’s time, but you also want to make sure you provide enough information that they are interested in you. Sending an email that says, “Hey, I am looking for a research lab to work in. Do you have anything available?” is sure to be ignored. As you are crafting that email, make sure you check for spelling and grammatical errors!

Having a poor idea of what kind of research actually goes on in the laboratory you want to join. If you make conceptual errors in your communication with the laboratory, that is going to reflect poorly on you. Make sure you’re prepared.

Thinking that you deserve a position because you pay tuition to go to school here. Yes, you do pay a tidy sum to attend UW, but there are a lot of other students trying to get these positions. Your tuition dollars do not fund research labs. In fact, the professor’s research grant funding helps fund the university.