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How to Get Involved in Research

There are at least three very good reasons to get involved in independent research in a lab while you are here at UT. First, the neuroscience B.S. degrees allow 3-6 hours of independent research (NEU 377 or 379H) to count to toward the degree, and the Neuroscience Scholars degree requires 3h. Second, if you are thinking about going to graduate school or considering a job in biotech, pharma, technology, or the medical fields, lab experience is essential. Third, as a science major, you should have some experience actually doing science. There are many labs at UT doing cutting-edge neuroscience research, from the molecular level up to the systems level, including research on human cognitive processes. UT is a great place to do neuroscience research.

Here is some advice about how to get involved.

  1. It pays to get involved early. It takes time to learn lab skills, and it takes time to earn the trust of the people you’re working for. If you start working in a lab in your freshman or sophomore year, you might have the opportunity to work in the same lab for 2 or 3 years. A tenure of this length will likely give you the opportunity to become very skilled in a variety of techniques germane to your lab and to take on more interesting responsibilities, perhaps even your own project. You may end up as a co-author on a publication, or you may have the opportunity to present results at a conference. This is good for you, the student, and it’s also good for the lab. If you’re a junior or senior, not to worry. It’s still worth getting involved, and your maturity and experience may enable you to make a bigger contribution to the lab in a shorter amount of time.
  1. If you want to enroll in NEU 377, you’ll first need to find a lab. And it’s likely that you’ll need to spend a semester in a lab before you are able to enroll in NEU 377. This is up to your faculty mentor. Different mentors have different policies.
  1. How to find a lab:
  • Check out faculty webpages. Here’s a good place to start. This page lists all the faculty participating in the UT Institute for Neuroscience. This list includes most or all the neuroscience labs on campus, across many departments and at Dell Medical School.
  • Talk to your professors and let them know that you are trying to get involved in research. If they aren’t too busy, class office hours can be a good time to discuss how the interests you’re developing in a class might translate to lab work. They may be able to steer you toward an opportunity.
  • Check out EUREKA, particularly the “Projects” page. It lists research labs that are currently seeking undergraduates for help on specific projects.
  • Once you’ve identified a lab that interests you, do a little bit of research. Carefully read the lab website. Maybe check out a few of their publications. Try to identify their “big picture” research question, their level of analysis, and some of the approaches they use. This information will help with your next task…
  • Thoughtfully compose an email to the PI or to a researcher in the lab. Beware that faculty receive a lot of emails. If your email looks like a form letter or doesn’t include any specific information, you may not receive a reply. If you can articulate some specifics about why you’re interested in a particular lab, you’ll be more successful in getting a response. It is very helpful to include information on the courses you’ve taken, which topics in these courses have particularly caught your interest, and your future plans. Many faculty will also want you to attach an updated resume or CV and an unofficial transcript. Don’t forget to PROOFREAD your email! Finally, before sending it it is never a bad idea to show your email to another faculty member that you already know and get feedback.
  • If you don’t hear back, it’s ok to follow-up with a second email. If you send out a large number of emails and get no responses, speak with a faculty member that you know and show your emails; there might be a simple fix to your correspondence that will make it more likely to be noticed.
  • Not every lab has the space or the need for an undergraduate assistant at the specific time you’re contacting them. Don’t feel discouraged if you are turned down. You’ll probably need to contact a few labs before finding the right opportunity. Also, keep in mind that undergraduates currently in the labs will graduate or get involved in other things. If a lab doesn’t have an opening currently, you can contact that lab again a semester or year later to see if an opening has arisen.
  1. Once you find a lab, keep these things in mind:
  • Before you are given responsibility, you need to earn trust. You’ll probably need to do some grunt work before you get to do something interesting.
  • Be reliable. If you say you’re going to be there, be there. You want people to be able to count on you.
  • Scientists are often very exacting and meticulous with regard to their experiments, reagents, equipment and data. Much of the equipment and materials you’ll be using in lab are vital to other things and costly to replace. Scientists often find it difficult to entrust another individual with these things when they are vital to the advancement of projects in the lab. Earn their trust by being meticulous, taking detailed notes, and asking for guidance when you’re uncertain.
  • Ask for some articles about your research project. Read them. Talk to people in the lab about them.
  • Make the most of the opportunity by asking questions, finding ways to contribute, and getting to know the people in the lab.