Orchestration – How to get the most out of your undergraduate research programme

In this blog post, Dr. Sunghee Lee explains how to build a “symphony” of collaborating and complementary research projects in your undergraduate research laboratory


 

Faculty members of PUIs face challenges when establishing and sustaining active research programs. Foremost among these are limitations of time and resources. As a result of these challenges, sluggish research progress is not unexpected, which in turn adds an additional road-block to carrying out an impactful research program over a sustained period. Unlike a research lab of a typical research-intensive institution, which consists mostly of post-docs and graduate students who do research with full-time commitment, it is quite different for a faculty working entirely with undergraduate students. Besides a lack of training in a specific field of research, necessitating a more hands-on approach of mentorship, undergrads have limited time to devote to any given research project, even those who are extremely dedicated and motivated. Therefore, it is not uncommon that the majority of research activity at PUIs happens only during summer break, with an inevitable long pause during the academic semesters, as students resume their course work. The momentum of research activity is hence difficult to maintain with such a time-table, where research projects have an on-and-off cycle throughout the year. As a result of these factors, even with students starting their research project as early as their freshman summer and returning every summer to work on the same project, it is not easy to have publishable results by the time of student’s graduation.

“…undergrads have limited time to devote to any given research project, even those who are extremely dedicated and motivated.”

Dr. Sunghee Lee

I’ve been a CUR chem author a few times in the past, including one entry in which I shared my experiences of managing a large undergraduate research group. This time, I would like to focus more on the orchestration of a research project, which may help to overcome the unique adverse situations that PUI faculty members face, and hopefully transform those into advantages for us.

My research group is called “Project Symphony“. This naming came from the idea that all of our group members work together in harmony to achieve what would appear to be dauntingly difficult if done individually. I would like to note that this harmony refers not only to the social relationships among research group members and how they get along with each other as one family, but also individual research projects and how they connect to each other, and form a greater synergy from each other.

The current overarching goal of our lab is focused on gaining a better understanding of cell membranes, through construction of artificial membrane mimics. Using diverse techniques of surface chemistry and biophysics, our group builds and characterizes the molecular mimics of cell membranes and studies structural changes upon membrane interaction with other molecules, such as drugs, cholesterol, and proteins.

As a result of such mini-collaboration within a group of undergraduates, we have four manuscripts being prepared with their names as co-authors. This level of quality and productivity would have not been possible without the intentional orchestration of these projects.

Dr. Sunghee Lee

Let me explain a bit more about the research projects of this year’s seven graduating seniors. They are truly exemplars of how Project Symphony works. All seven research projects work in a cross-disciplinary fashion, each addressing specific aims, yet with cross communication between individual projects. This is akin to how a Symphony functions, which includes multiple distinct sections with various musical instruments.

For example, there is Michael’s project on theoretical modeling of permeability determination in a computational cell membrane, which provides the mathematical tools needed to calculate the experimental observation of volume change happening as a result of passive permeation of water molecules across real model membranes. This method is then used to analyzed Brona’s project where she focused on the creation of the asymmetric lipid membrane and its physical properties. Megan investigates the effect of drugs on membrane properties, and Shea studies the role of vitamin E on polyunsaturated membranes. Both students benefit greatly from the ability to accurately determine the water permeability, and their findings are further strengthened by the vibrational structural analysis project done by Libby, where Confocal Raman Microspectroscopy is utilized to investigate subtle structural changes in the solid supported lipid membrane. Alyssa’s project on the investigation of surface and interfacial properties of amphiphilic lipid molecules at the water/oil interface enriches our understanding of molecular behavior at the interface. The thermal analysis project by Anneliese adds additional dimensions that deepen understanding of the effect of molecules that structurally perturb cell membrane.

“…while these individual projects address different questions and vary in nature and experimental techniques, they share the same goal in that the contribution of all of these findings eventually leads to a greater understanding of the biological membrane…”

Dr. Sunghee Lee

As one can see, while these individual projects address different questions and vary in nature and experimental techniques, they share the same goal in that the contribution of all of these findings eventually leads to a greater understanding of the biological membrane using various physico-chemical techniques. As a result of such mini-collaboration within a group of undergraduates, we have four manuscripts being prepared with their names as co-authors. This level of quality and productivity would have not been possible without the intentional orchestration of these projects. It is not an issue for undergraduates to intertwine their research projects, since their focus is not so much about writing an individual thesis, but rather, experience and training along the way.

As I am writing this, we have 20 members of Project Symphony, who range in status from freshmen to senior. This year, 7 seniors will be graduating from my research group, the largest quantity so far in my decade of managing this undergraduate research group at Iona. Every year, upon the graduation of experienced undergraduates, my first reaction is: “I have to start all over again … from recruiting & training to building a harmonious team.” I feel like a sport-team coach who is losing many key players at once. And yet, to my surprise, Junior members, who had typically been followers, largely dependent on seniors, step up and show leadership, year after year. Therefore, I have absolutely no doubt that the huge void to be shortly created by seven graduating seniors, will be quickly filled by underclassman, before I even realize it happening.

I have absolutely no doubt that the huge void to be shortly created by seven graduating seniors, will be quickly filled by underclassman, before I even realize it happening.

Dr. Sunghee Lee

The crux for success of Project Symphony is the fact that all of the projects within it interrelate, thereby allowing members to be exposed to its many facets in order to understand the larger scientific problems we strive to solve. Thus, Project Symphony members learn effective teamwork across multidisciplinary fields, which is what all students will face when they graduate and enter the workforce of the future.

What I have described may not be applicable to all PUI faculty members or to all unique research agendas. However, I am hoping that it may provide some value to readers who can adapt its general principle for orchestration of their projects, to enjoy beautiful harmony as the final product, just like the conductor in a full orchestra!

Dr. Sunghee Lee is the Board of Trustees Endowed Professor of Chemistry at Iona College in New Rochelle, NY where her current research involves the chemistry of soft materials with an emphasis on their interfaces and surfaces, directed toward crystal engineering, understanding the cell membrane, and materials design needed for the development of advanced functional materials. See more on Dr. Lee athttp://www.dropletbilayer.com.

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