Skip to content

Who gets to do undergraduate research?

Introduction

Gaining research experience as an undergraduate science major is an important part of learning what science is and how science is done. When undergraduates engage in science research, they have opportunities not only to build their research knowledge and skills, but also to develop confidence in their ability to do research, begin to identify as a member of the science research community, make connections with faculty and other early career researchers, and decide whether they want to continue in graduate education or careers involving research (Gentile et al., 2017). Yet, undergraduate research experiences (UREs) typically involve one-on-one apprenticeship with a more experienced scientist (e.g., graduate student, postdoc, faculty member). This makes getting access to these experiences quite difficult, especially in high demand fields like the life sciences. In fact, students who are most likely to do UREs are ones who come to college poised for success – their parents completed college and even advanced degrees, their high schools offered demanding science and math courses, and they may have even been involved in high school science or research programs (Gentile et al., 2017).

In this series of posts, we will focus on evidence-based practices related to undergraduate research and consider recruitment, selection, mentorship, and communication, among other topics. We will also offer practical suggestions for how to establish and sustain quality mentoring relationships with undergraduates in your research group.

Who gets to do undergraduate research?

Even at institutions with a long history of offering undergraduate research experiences (UREs), the most common mechanisms for establishing connections between students and research mentors involve students making contact or being in the right place at the right time (Gentile et al., 2017). While these serendipitous connections often result in valuable research experiences for both students and their research mentors, this route to research is neither particularly equitable nor inclusive. One way that the Center for Chemical Currencies of a Microbial Planet (C-CoMP) is working to promote equitable and inclusive access to undergraduate research is by working with partner institutions to implement course-based UREs, or CUREs (Bangera & Brownell, 2014) based on C-CoMP research. CUREs involve students in doing a real research project as part of a course (Auchincloss et al., 2014). This means that everyone who enrolls in the course gets access to a research experience and has the potential to benefit from being involved in research. CUREs offer more equitable access to research because the control over who gets involved in research rests more with the student based on their course registration, rather than which students know how to find research mentors or which students’ mentors happen to invite them to join their research groups. CUREs are also more inclusive because they operate on the assumption everyone has thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that have value for research and CUREs involve more undergraduates in research than would be possible through UREs. To learn more about CUREs in general, check out CUREnet. And keep an eye on the C-CoMP site for details on our CURE initiative when it goes live later this year.

If you can’t teach a CURE, here are some ways you can make access to UREs in your research group more equitable and inclusive.

The principle of equity:

Constantly and consistently recognizing and redistributing power. Equity is about who has power in a group and how that power can be redistributed to be fairer.

The principle of inclusion:

Behaving in ways that explicitly and implicitly indicate that the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of all individuals matter.

The next time you are considering mentoring an undergraduate researcher in your group:

  • Reach out to students rather than expecting them to find you. Advertise through your department as well as other departments adjacent to your research area. Clearly indicate that you will welcome students without previous research experience.
  • Seek out different spaces and networks from which to recruit. Many colleges and universities are home to clubs for science students from marginalized or minoritized backgrounds, or programs that support involvement in research by students who are first-generation college bound or have financial need, such as the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation or TRIO programs like McNair Scholars. By engaging with these networks, you can reach new and different groups of students than those who might otherwise seek you out for a research internship (Stanton et al., 2022).
  • Try selecting undergraduate interns based on their scientific interests or their desire to gain experience, without regard for their GPA. Research indicates that metrics of achievement, like GPA or test scores, do not necessarily predict persistence or success in research (Cooper et al., 2019; Moneta-Koehler et al., 2017). Moving beyond these metrics as selection criteria makes it possible for new and different students to engage in research.
  • Avoid requiring that undergraduates volunteer for a term before officially joining your group. Requiring volunteering can unintentionally exclude students who have to take care of family, have to work a job to pay their bills, or otherwise are unable to commit time without some concrete benefit. Earning credit or pay for UREs makes it possible for a more diverse group of students to engage in research.

Do you have other ideas or examples of how to make access to undergraduate research more equitable and inclusive? Are you wondering how to make particular research activities more equitable and inclusive? Email us at contact_c-comp@whoi.edu– your input may be the focus of a future blog post!

About the Author

Dr. Erin Dolan is a Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology and Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Innovative Science Education at the University of Georgia as well as C-CoMP’s Diversity Coordinator.

References

Auchincloss, L. C., Laursen, S. L., Branchaw, J. L., Eagan, K., Graham, M., Hanauer, D. I., Lawrie, G., McLinn, C. M., Pelaez, N., Rowland, S., Towns, M., Trautmann, N. M., Varma-Nelson, P., Weston, T. J., & Dolan, E. L. (2014). Assessment of Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences: A Meeting Report. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(1), 29–40. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-01-0004.

Bangera, G., & Brownell, S. E. (2014). Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences Can Make Scientific Research More Inclusive. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 13(4), 602–606. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.14-06-0099.

Cooper, K. M., Gin, L. E., Akeeh, B., Clark, C. E., Hunter, J. S., Roderick, T. B., Elliott, D. B., Gutierrez, L. A., Mello, R. M., Pfeiffer, L. D., Scott, R. A., Arellano, D., Ramirez, D., Valdez, E. M., Vargas, C., Velarde, K., Zheng, Y., & Brownell, S. E. (2019). Factors that predict life sciences student persistence in undergraduate research experiences. PLOS ONE, 14(8), e0220186. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0220186.

Dolan, E. L., & Weaver, G. C. (2021). A Guide to Course-based Undergraduate Research (1st ed.). Macmillan Higher Education. https://www.macmillanlearning.com/college/us/product/A-Guide-to-Course-based-Undergraduate-Research/p/1319367186.

Gentile, J., Brenner, K., & Stephens, A. (Eds.). (2017). Undergraduate Research Experiences for STEM Students: Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities. National Academies Press. https://www.nap.edu/catalog/24622/undergraduate-research-experiences-for-stem-students-successes-challenges-and-opportunities.

Moneta-Koehler, L., Brown, A. M., Petrie, K. A., Evans, B. J., & Chalkley, R. (2017). The Limitations of the GRE in Predicting Success in Biomedical Graduate School. PLOS ONE, 12(1), e0166742. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0166742.

Stanton, J. D., Means, D. R., Babatola, O., Osondu, C., Oni, O., & Mekonnen, B. (2022). Drawing on Internal Strengths and Creating Spaces for Growth: How Black Science Majors Navigate the Racial Climate at a Predominantly White Institution to Succeed. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 21(1), ar3. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.21-02-0049.