This summer I was a Research Fellow at the College of Pharmacy. I know the term “Research Fellow” sounds intense, but it is more of a – what I like to call – “resume booster term.” All it means is that I was doing research, and more than just bench work in the lab.
Before I started my project, I was anxious about what research entails. Am I coming up with new science? Am I developing my own protocols? How am I supposed to know what to do? What if I mutate my genes and start liking country music? But after the completion of this project, I am more confident in my abilities as a researcher.
To answer the most dreaded question, NO, you are not expected to know what to do on your own. As an undergraduate student, you are likely not familiar with your research topic or any of the science involved, and the professors are aware of this. Depending on the workload of the professor, you will either be working with the professor or one of her graduate students. Whoever you work with will introduce you to the resources you need, and help you out with anything you need, including lab techniques.
I also realized that research, to a certain extent, is working off of existing science. Sure, there is room for creativity, but as an undergrad, I did not have enough experience to go off on my own. I was reading so many research papers and existing literature to understand my research topic. One of the protocols that I came up with was also derived from the literature. I was customizing established protocols to meet the needs of my research topic.
I was mostly working with a machine that I had never even heard about before. It took me a while to get used to it. Everything that could possibly go wrong with the machine, did go wrong. However, either the grad student or the post-doc in the lab was always around to help me figure out what went wrong. After a couple of weeks, I was able to work the machine on my own!
Because of this experience, I have also become more proficient in general lab skills. My pipetting skills are off the charts. I pay more attention to lab safety and organization in things like storing chemicals, waste disposal, labeling.
This research experience has been valuable to me. I know now what a possible career in technical science will look like. I can also use the skills that I learned in the lab to succeed in my other lab classes.
Summary: 10/10 would recommend participating in research in any capacity