Setting the Pavers: Establishing Firm Footings during the Early Stages of Undergraduate Research

Would you believe that your undergraduate research student is most likely to describe you as “patient”? In this blog post, Dr. Kraig Wheeler reflects on the faculty-student relationship in undergraduate research, and how to get that relationship off to a great start. 


The old adage of ‘how we were taught is how we teach’ often holds in spades. This can also be true for mentoring our undergraduate research (UR) students. I was quite fortunate to have research mentors that provided me with nurturing and constructive experiences. There are plenty of others out there with less than ideal mentoring experiences. The reasons for this are likely endless, but often relate to learned patterns and misplaced motivations lurking behind the scenes.

grove-wheelerHow then to best mentor undergraduate research students? The collection of literature reports directed at this subject continues to grow and offers enormous help on a wide variety of issues. Overall experiences from seasoned practitioners and data that have surfaced over the last few decades suggest best practices for an enriched UR teacher-scholar-student experience. These resources should not be ignored and provide valuable insight into the deep corners of effective mentoring.

I still find it interesting that most students are unaware of the range of research related faculty activities. Yes, these activities go beyond face-to-face student interactions in the research setting. Areas that also require our attention include recruitment, project planning and execution, and building effective off-ramps to name a few. The latter area refers to expected outcomes from research product. Such activities could include presentations, publications, student outcomes (ranging from campus awards to improved GPAs), life after graduation, and granstmanship. Some of the most effective mentors consider these outcomes well before the student steps foot in their lab. We would all like to be successful in each of these research stages. Some might think partnering with exceptionally gifted students answers all problems. Not only is that approach unmanageable, many (including myself) find it to be a poor fit with the mission and spirit of our global UR enterprise where the focus should be developing a broad cross-section of students as productive and critical thinkers.

Arguably the least effective approach would focus on addressing student deficiencies on the fly. This should be avoided!

The Challenge

So where does this conversation begin if not with student selection? For me, it largely begins with conveying student expectations. At a recenter CUR National Conference I attended, I sat in on the session Mentoring Undergraduate Students in Laboratory Based Research: A Discussion of Best Practices presented by Rebecca Jones and George Shields. Data presented there exposed an interesting reality regarding the student-mentor relationship. When asked to list adjectives that describe their research mentor, students overwhelmingly selected the word Patient! Maybe this comes as no surprise; however, sitting in the audience and reflecting on this issue I realized the traits I most desire in my research students are somewhat contrasting – i.e., enthusiasm, inquisitiveness, effective communication skills, to name just a few. This exercise indicates how students and faculty mentors often approach the research experience very differently. Creating an effective partnership invariably requires student and researcher to hash out expectations. While this usually involves the faculty member communicating expectations with the student, the discussion of expectations should certainly go both ways. My experience is that if a faculty member lacks an interest in student success then they should firmly ignore any idea of conveying expectations. Arguably the least effective approach would focus on addressing student deficiencies on the fly. This should be avoided! Though it is not possible to manage or even identify every issue before it arises, proactively addressing student expectations can significantly contribute to a healthy research environment.

When asked to list adjectives that describe their research mentor, students overwhelmingly selected the word Patient!

The Pavers

The remaining portion of this musing describes my use of student-specific research guides to help clarify expectations. Over the last 20+ years, I have noticed such an approach can offer students an effective roadmap for navigating the start of their research experience. Yes, this research guide includes a description of my expectations, but also explains ongoing research themes in my lab, offers perspective for the student’s project, experimental details, specific research tasks, learning objectives, key literature links, and what they can expect. Details of each follow:

Background Information (2-3 pages, single-spaced)

Offering students a glimpse of notable literature examples and current research challenges is essential to their professional development. This space not only conveys important science related to their project, it also offers opportunities to explain research from my current research projects. It is my experience that students who understand the context of their research project move from participants of stand-alone ventures to problem solvers with a distinct purpose.

Research Proposal (1-2 pages)

Similar to other proposals I write, this section gives ample information regarding the hows and whys of the project at a level the student can understand. Adding plenty of detail and illustrations helps with clarification and often gives needed insight to the various stages of the research project. In my case, this section speaks to the various compounds to be synthesized and their detailed synthetic routes, the expected recognition profiles of molecular assemblies, and the functional properties we hope to measure, exploit, and produce.

Tasks to be completed

A view of the outcomes we expect to produce during the course of the study is offered as an itemized list. This list complements the research proposal section by providing tangible goals. This often includes details related to each targeted compound: quantities to produce, spectroscopic investigations, and crystal structures to be determined, but also specific tasks such as purification steps and literature searches.

Learning Objectives

Outside of specific research tasks to be completed, this section provides an opportunity to convey skills the student will acquire during their studies (e.g. spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography). Discussing how such skills will benefit the student in their course work and future professional goals can add a sense of importance to the laboratory experience.

Key Literature

Including literature citations central to the project can be valuable to both the student and mentor. Such information provides a starting point for future literature searches, but also gives a record not easily forgotten or lost to all those involved.

What is expected of you?

I find it helpful to let new research students know what is expected of them during their stay in my laboratory. Having this in writing is important to all parties for establishing a baseline of essential expectations. For me, the content of this section ranges from lab safety to, communication issues to, student working hours to, lab notebooks. From my experience, I have discovered this is not the time to treat the subject of expectations lightly. Provide as many details, within reason, as possible. The vast majority of students appreciate this structure and understand its importance to a healthy working environment.

What can you expect?

This is best verbalized with the student, but why not offer some helpful thoughts about the research process in the guide? The inexperience of new researchers is evident the first weeks in the lab when they discover not every experiment is successful. To navigate these struggles they will need patience and persistence as well as an ample dose of problem-
solving skills to be successful. Conveying this encouragement can help them understand the value of the mentor-student partnership to the research journey.

I find it essential to have a face-to-face discussion with the student at the start of their project.

The Art of the Sit-Down

Similar to the strategy employed by many mentors I’ve known, I find it essential to have a face-to-face discussion with the student at the start of their project. The 30-45 minutes we spend together sets the tone for much of what will go on in the lab the first few weeks. A conversation with the guide in front of us helps me emphasize areas of importance such as communication, challenging aspects of the experiments, and lab safety. This time also offers an opportunity to express my enthusiasm for their project and possible avenues for dissemination (publications and presentations). We also establish a lab schedule convenient to both of us and depending on the student’s experience, we often take the next step and discuss the details of the first experiments. Students going away from this first important interaction should have a strong sense of expectations and a clear view of their research project objectives.

Research Guide Value

Research guides are uploaded to a secure web-based file storage system (Xythos) that also serves as a depository for student data and e-notebooks. Having easy access to this information (by student and mentor) is critical when juggling multiple projects.

The use of these research guides for the better part of my career goes beyond a tangible resource for setting expectations. Though most lack a reference point of comparison, student responses to the guide have been overwhelmingly positive. The structure and depth of information give each a sense of direction and purpose. The guide also sets the tone for future writing expectations, while offering some content for the student’s various writing projects (e.g., semester reports, conference abstracts, and scholarship applications).

As a final thought, I should say the use of research guides has enabled me to be a more effective mentor. It continues to assist with the organizational aspects of ongoing projects, in turn, offering opportunities to enhance the outcomes and productivity experienced with our research pursuits.


 

~ Dr. Kraig Wheeler is a professor of organic chemistry at Eastern Illinois UniversityHis research interests include the study of supramolecular assemblies, molecular recognition processes, predicting the organization of electrostatic contacts in competitive crystal environments, and X-ray crystallography. One of his passions includes helping students experience the joys of organic chemistry – both in teaching and research. Seeing students have “light bulb” experiences and taking part in weighty classroom discussions keeps him motivated to stay a few steps ahead of his students.

 

References

Malachowski, M. 1996. “The Mentoring Role in Undergraduate Research Projects.” CUR Quarterly, Dec 1996.

Temple, L., Sibley, T. Q., Orr, A. J. 2010. “How to Mentor Undergraduate Researchers.” from the Council on Undergraduate Research “How To” Series.

“Mentoring Undergraduates: A Guide for Mentors”, University of Miami. [https://umshare.miami.edu/web/wda/undergraduateresearch/entoringGuide.pdf, accessed 11/2014

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