In my department, we have a complicated relationship with REU (Research Experience for Undergraduate) programs. We have several well-funded active labs on my campus that provide quality mentored research opportunities to biology undergrads, so students in our department do who want to have impactful research experience have access to them. However, it’s still valuable for these students to go to an REU program at another university in the summer. REU programs*, especially those in places with a bunch of PhD students around, may have a strong positive impact on the professional trajectory of students who are doing their undergrad at primarily undergraduate institutions. Even though academics are known for unnecessarily qualifying general statements with “may,” “might,” or “possibly,” the may that I italicized in the previous sentence was there by design. It might have a positive impact. Or it might actually have a negative impact. It depends.
Summer is go-time for research, particularly in undergraduate institutions. But yet, when I walk across the desolate campus in summer, I inevitably get from the first person I see, “What are you doing here?” If classes aren’t in session, most folks campus can’t imagine why we’d stick around.
We did a thing that worked. Maybe you could try it. It’s something that I’ve suggested before, but now some results are in and I’m sharing it with you.
If you’re looking to recruit more undergraduates to your campus for summer research opportunities (and more), listen up.
You know how when drug developers are doing a clinical trial, but they stop the trial early because the results are so promising, that they are ethically bound to give the treatment to everybody in the control group? That’s how I feel about what I’m telling you today.
I’ve talked to a lot of talented undergraduates who have been in search of summer research opportunities, but end up not having any options available.
Doctoral programs expect undergraduate applicants to have meaningful research experience. This might not be on the application checklist, but it’s essentially a requirement. That means if we’re trying to be equitable about access to graduate education, that means we have make sure that access to undergraduate research experiences is equitable.
How do undergraduate students wind up in labs doing research? What’s the best way to identify students to bring into the lab?
I’m back down at the field station in Costa Rica (missing my family quite a bit) and I had a very minor realization while having dinner among my students. It’s definitely a cliché of sorts, but I realized that the t-shirt I was wearing was older than some of my students.
I know this because the t-shirt had a specific date on it
On a Friday in mid-March, a student in my department was notified that they were just accepted into an NSF-funded REU program. (For more about REUs, here’s an earlier post.) It’s program with a fair amount of prestige, but definitely not in the highest tier among the folks who keep track of status. Which is everybody, of course.
They were told they needed to accept or decline by Monday.
I know a lot of scientists who got their start from an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. One summer as an REU has the potential to be transformational.
Advancing science in the US (and elsewhere) requires us to fund undergraduate research, and ensure that undergraduate researchers have thoughtful and attentive mentorship. We already spend a lot of money on training students – and I’d like to make sure that these efforts have the biggest bang for the buck. We are focused on broadening representation, but we haven’t seen the changes we need. Can we make REU programs* more effective?