I advised three undergraduate research students past semester. They were involved in aspects of my research project on the phylogenetics and biogeography of a group of weevils. The students were assigned individual projects focusing a particular task/aspect. One student performed molecular work, doing lots of PCR and DNA sequencing. Another student was mainly databasing and imaging weevil specimens. The last student worked on weevil specimens preserved in alcohol, having to sort them to species.
To learn about their experiences of doing research in the lab and with me, I invited the students for a casual gathering today. And there are a few things for future consideration.
1. The students would like to have some general ideas on how their individual projects fit to the bigger of picture of research. This was brought up because the individual projects only concerned very specific aspects of our research program and it was hard for a student to see why he/she was doing a particular task, e.g., PCR or specimen-sorting. Although I had always described the bigger project at the beginning, I guess I did not realize it was difficult for the students to understand the relevance of his/her project just by listening to a short verbal description. Two things could be done in the future. First, make the description more concrete. Provide more examples. Second, reiterate the goal(s) of the project and re-explain the project several times as the student proceeds with his/her research. Students gain greater and better understanding of their research/work after some hands-on experience, and iterations would help them further their understands of their positions in the research program.
2. The students would like to have some general lectures on the research program conducted in the lab. Our lab works on the taxonomy, systematics, phylogenetics and evolution of weevils. Students would benefit from learning the basics of these subjects. Taxonomy is not a well-covered subject in university biology/life sciences curriculum nowadays. Some of the students did not have a good understanding of Linnaean taxonomy. It turned out to be quite hard to communicate with students about the concepts of taxonomic ranks such as order, family, subfamily and genus, which are essential for virtually any aspects of our research program. Perhaps learning the basic concepts would help.
3. One student mentioned he would like to have more technical help//guidance on a particular task. I have to admit that there was some lack of supervision from my side in this particular student. Periodical discussions on research or technical challenges would resolve this issue in the future.
4. One student commented that he would like to do a greater variety of work. He was mainly doing molecular work, which happens to be rather standardized. This is somewhat difficult to address because it would be hard to have a novice undergraduate student multi-task at the beginning of his/her research. Other means/methods are needed to sustain a student's interested and motivation. See No. 5 below.
5. Concrete products/results may help students sustain their interest in the work. The same student who raised the issue described in No.4 also commented that seeing actual gel pictures (for visualizing PCR results) was always something exciting and editing the chromatograms (of DNA sequences) was also something enjoyable. These are visually concrete products that a person can interact with directly (as compared to the invisible DNA). The other two students did not have this problem because they worked directly with actual weevil specimens.
6. In relation to No. 5, it would be good to lay out clear project/research goals and have appropriate assessment methods. It is easy to get disinterested or simply habituated to keep doing a certain task without really knowing what one has achieved. For future students, I will try setting goals for them in terms of the skills to gain, the tasks to accomplish and the knowledge to learn, and assess their research/learning progress frequently.
7. Assess strengths and weaknesses of students and assign projects accordingly. This requires some experience working together with students and making observations. But these may not be enough. During our meeting today, it turned out one student actually has an interest in photography and I did not know about it (even after working with him for a semester). I had him sort specimens most of the time. In future I can try doing some diagnostics on the student before assigning work.
Overall, the students enjoyed their experiences doing research in the lab. It was also a great experience for me. Dealing with the diversity of and the differences among the students is probably the most challenging aspect of my mentoring. Still a lot more to learn and experiment with for myself.
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