Tuesday, January 29, 2008

REU^2

The comments on the previous post about summer internship programs for undergraduate science majors raise interesting issues:

Typically, REU* students come from universities/colleges other than one's own -- how do you balance working with REU students and working with students from your own institution?
(* REU = Research Experiences for Undergraduates)

Ideally, of course, you work with both, if you have the time and resources to do so. I like having undergraduates from my own institution working with my research group. These are the students we know and love, and I think we also have a responsibility to give our students as interesting an educational experience as we possibly can -- for some students, that involves working with their professors on research projects. In addition, there is a continuous supply of talented and motivated students who are interested in getting some research experience, either for academic credit or for pay. If you start working with students before their senior year starts, they can be involved in more in-depth research projects than is possible in a summer internship. Right now, I've got 3 undergrads working with my group.

Summer interns work on a very focused project for a short amount of time. This limits what you can do, but it is possible to accomplish something interesting and possibly significant in a summer; some of my summer interns have co-authored papers with me based largely on their summer research projects. In addition, some REU students continue their summer projects once they are back at their home institution. Several of my REU summer students have done this very successfully, presented their results at national meetings, and had their choice of graduate schools.

A large number of our REU applicants come from small liberal arts schools. These students want to experience a big research university to see what it's like, and I think it is important that they have such opportunities.

Funding agencies seem to be losing track of the most important aspects of the internship programs.

I don't mean to disparage the importance of learning to work collaboratively and travel around in a herd of science students all wearing the same T-shirts, but I think that the intellectual content of the research programs is the most important element. If a program has a demonstrated record of providing an excellent experience for students, that should count for a lot. We came close to losing our program because the funding agency wasn't sure if we were providing enough of a 'cohort experience' for the interns. Cohort experiences are apparently favored over students being locked in isolated basement labs with analytical equipment that makes strange humming sounds. I don't get that. OK, I do, but..

Grad students and postdocs end up doing a lot of the advising.

This is certainly the case in some instances. I don't think any grad student or postdoc should have to advise an undergraduate if they don't want to and if it is not specifically a part of their job as a research assistant or postdoc. Some grad students and postdocs want to advise or help advise students, and I think they should be given the opportunity to do so, provided that the project is reasonable and so on. I know of quite a few cases in which this advising/mentoring experience was important when the grad students/postdocs were later considered for faculty positions.

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Involving undergrads in research -- whether in the summer or during the academic year -- is a very good thing. It does not always work out -- I have had my share of negative experiences working with dysfunctional and/or annoying students (who no doubt would say similar things about me) -- but when it works well, it's great.

2 comments:

i-was-a-lab-monkey said...

I have fond memories of hours spent locked in a dark room with my various glowing tubes. I'm not sure that more 'cohort' experience would have made up for that.

Seriously though, I think sometimes the problem is that summers are relatively short and if lab work is mixed up with lots of group activities it can be difficult to do concentrated work/makes it harder to integrate with the rest of the group (i.e. you become 'one of the summer program students' rather than 'the summer student in the ScienceProfessor Group'). Once I was in a program and 'doing the program' (going to lots of visits/talks/extras designed to enhance the experience) made it very difficult to actually do any science.

On the other hand, I can see that having group experiences can mean that nobody has a really bad summer experience, even if the group they are in isn't great.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, being closed up in a dark room with your experiments shouldn't be under-rated :-).

I agree w/ lab-monkey that the social stuff can distract from the real goal of doing research, but it also protects you from the bad lab experience. But, as I keep saying to everyone, you have to enjoy the research itself, not just the going to seminars, and talking with people, and thinking about science part of the business.

I still think some of my all-night experiments in grad school were a magical experience, some of the best nights of my life. I wouldn't have rather been doing almost anything else (including sleeping, apparently). I fear for people who are scientists but didn't feel that way.