William J. Anderson, Ph.D.
Senior Lecturer on Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology
Concentration Advisor, Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (HDRB)
In my opinion, commonly shared by my colleagues, one of the main reasons Harvard College is so special is that students have the opportunity to participate in independent research alongside the crème de la crème in their respective disciplines. I can attest that this is especially important in the life sciences. In these fields, Harvard stands out from other institutions particularly because of its relationship with some of the best hospitals and research centers in the country. Our faculty hold both teaching and research positions and they welcome undergraduates into their labs where they can learn how to be better scientists.
Faculty constantly describe the importance of hands-on research. Doing science is the best way to learn science. It serves to perfectly complement what you will be exposed to in your classes. In addition to courses that have inquiry-based labs, all undergraduates should spend at least one semester in the lab of a faculty member in the greater Harvard community. For example, students learn about PCR in LS 1a, but independent research in a faculty lab can give them the opportunity to perfect their understanding through actual practice in a working environment. In SCRB 10, we describe how axolotls can, under certain circumstances, regenerate parts of their bodies, whereas students working in the Whited Lab physically engage with these model organisms, doing hard science in the pursuit of finding solutions for humans who experience extreme trauma to their limbs. In HDRB, we feel so strongly about this that at least one semester of independent research in a faculty lab is a formal requirement for the concentration.
Many undergraduates are intimidated by the prospect of bench work. Some feel that they won’t like the experience or they might not be skilled enough yet to work in a lab. Yet Harvard’s commitment to teaching and learning provides many opportunities to work with world-class scientists and teachers, all who are eager to mentor students as they were mentored themselves during their early years.
This then begs the question as to what lab is the best fit for a given student. This step requires some homework and diligence on the part of the student, who should educate themselves about the types of labs in the area and the work that they do. Whether you are inspired by ALS or cancer, drug discovery or iPS cells, organogenesis or tissue regeneration, or any of a host of different scientific pursuits, there are professors investigating those issues who enjoy fresh perspectives from students, and are committed to teaching the next generation of scientists. Talk to your peers, friends, and concentration advisors to get insight into the student experience in the labs to which you are attracted, which might even lead to choices you had not considered. Lab environments differ, so while one lab might not be a good fit for one type of student, it could be a perfect fit for another. Either way, the process begins with research and reaching out: find some labs which interest you, and write to those faculty to introduce yourself and see if they have space for you to join the team.
Although it is tempting to select a lab based on the perceived fame or influence of a particular person, it is the science itself that should drive you. Even if the lab is a wonderful environment and you get along well with your mentor and supervisors, if you are not very interested in the work, going to the lab will begin to feel like a chore. Therefore, it is important to first find a topic in which you are passionate and then from there identify labs with good mentoring. Small labs often provide a more hands-on and intimate relationship with the team, whereas large labs can offer a greater variety of experiences and the chance to engage with many different people doing a diverse set of experiments. Students in HDRB and other life science concentrations have done everything from working alongside a postdoc feeding cells to working independently on their own projects, often resulting in authorship on a published paper. This flexibility is endemic to the College’s approach to research experience, and our students benefit from the choice of options available to them.
When you are working in the lab, try to gain the most from your time there. Engage with your faculty mentor; she is a great source of advice not only related to your project, but also post-graduate plans. Try to learn what others are doing in the lab. It helps to see where your project fits in related to the goals of the lab as a whole. Whenever possible, work with your lab to try to present your data, whether it be in a lab meeting, poster presentation, or publication. Most importantly, have fun! You have the ability to work with some of the best minds on cutting edge problems. Your contribution to the team is a valuable one, and will enrich your experience here at Harvard College.
I would like to thank Lisa Fountain for her comments and advice on this piece.