My name is Gidi Shemer and I am a faculty member in the Biology Department, also serving as the advisor of the biology majors and the coordinator of undergrad research in Biology.
If you are reading this post, you already made the first important step. You are interested in research. To me, spending four years at Carolina and not getting a research experience is (almost) as bad as not attending a single basketball game during your college years in Chapel Hill.
What I would like to share with you here are some tips vis-a-vis undergraduate research, based on questions that I frequently get from students. While I come from the Natural Science world (and you will see below that I am discussing experiments), I believe that at least some of the information applies also to research done in other fields.
What do I actually do when I perform research? Do I need to come up with the ideas? Does someone tell me what to do?
You will be mentored by a grad student/postdoc/professor. Typically, your project will be a “sub-project” of your mentor’s research. The idea here is to teach you how to walk before you start running. You will learn the techniques, but more importantly, the scientific approach. What can go wrong with my experiment? What are the negative controls that I should use? And so forth.
Having said that, at some point you will “start running” and will be able to design your own experiments.
How do I start? Where can I find a research advisor?
The key word here is – proactive. You shouldn’t wait for professors to post “we are looking for a student” ads. What you should do is to invest in research through the web, to read what different professors/labs are studying, and to compile yourself a list of professors you want to work with. Then, send introductory emails to all those professors. Do not write “to whom it may concern”. Refer to their research. Explain why you are interested in their work.
Many will not respond. Be persistent, yet polite and send a reminder. To get additional tips on how to introduce yourself when contacting a professor, follow this link: http://www.unc.edu/depts/our/pdfs/contact_email_tips.pdf
None of the professors I contacted responded positively. Any helpful tips?
Here are two:
First, stand out in class. Your Genetics professor is probably running a lab. She has 200 students in her class and all she needs to do is cherry-pick the best one for undergraduate research. Be one of them- participate in discussions, meet the professors in their office and stand out.
Second, at least in the sciences, most labs are looking for paid technicians. This is not a hypothesis-driven research project. It is more of a “washing the dishes” type of job, but it is the best way to get you foot in the door. One semester as a lab tech, and you will find it much easier to get a research position in that lab.
Finally, for those who are specifically interested in natural science here is a link to help you search for labs. Simply follow a research field of your interest: http://webapps.med.unc.edu/BBSP/BBSPFaculty/research
PS Even if you are not starting research yet, don’t forget about that basketball game. You SHOULD go to one.