On the Importance of Being a Scientist

As a Graduate Student Researcher we can identify as a student, teacher, or even an employee. But do we ever identify as a scientist? And if not, why not?

On a whim, I introduced myself as a “scientist” rather than a grad student in front of a large group of non-scientists. After explaining my unusual school situation several times to non-scientists after moving to LA, saying “scientist” just seemed easier. Despite the word scientist not appearing in my job title, I didn’t think I was wrong. After all, I have 2 degrees in biochemistry, am working on my third, and my days are spent designing and conducting experiments. Additionally, graduate students and post docs carry out a large portion of the NIH and NSF funded cutting-edge research that continues to place America as an innovative leader. I do the things that scientists do, so why couldn’t I call myself a scientist?

So I was surprised when someone, after finding out that I am a 5th year PhD student rather than a fully employed “scientist,” responded with “Oh, I thought you were a real scientist.”

Real scientist, eh?


I’m going to call this image “Super Scientist”…Me. Wearing a lab coat. Because that’s what real scientists do, right?

I wasn’t offended. Graduate student researchers walk a blurry line between student and employee—and that’s not necessarily well-known in other areas. While a masters student in accounting may spend his or her days taking classes and doing projects, a masters student in science usually does research and teaches college courses.


However, the comment did get me thinking about my identity as a student and as a scientist and how that has changed over the years. In graduate school, we identify ourselves by our current year in the program. Our year describes our experience, knowledge, and what challenges we might be facing in coursework, teaching, and exams. Saying I was a “first-year grad student” meant that I was drowning in coursework and teaching while trying to find a lab to call “home”—senior grad students took pity on me with a reassuring “if you can get through first year, you can get through grad school.” Because I was never expected to know how to do anything or work independently during that first year, I didn’t. And I was okay with that. I checked with my advisor or lab manager before every experiment and ran to one of them with every issue I faced rather than attempting to figure it out on my own. As a fifth-year student, I still don’t know everything, but the label comes with more confidence. People ask me where things are and how to perform protocols. They value my opinion for experimental design and interpreting results. I work more independently, trouble-shoot issues on my own, and sometimes even solve problems for others.

Yes, experience plays a large role here. But how much does our self-identification play into our ability to succeed?

In their book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard,” Chip and Dan Heath say to “cultivate a sense of identity and instill the growth mindset” when trying to instill change.1 This can be change within ourselves, others, or a company. They argue that when we label ourselves differently, making the change is much easier. For example, a student that is not doing well in math will never improve if they label themselves as “bad” at math. Instead, by instilling a growth mindset that says “Math is hard. But you are smart. And if you work hard, you will get better at math,” students are much more likely to improve. Similarly, if we tell ourselves that we are “only a first-year” or “only a student,” we may never push ourselves to be an independent researcher during graduate school. The reverse can also be true. If the label “student” is only applicable when in traditional learning environment, we would never learn new things and stop progressing.

How we identify ourselves and others can have a huge impact on our success. The next time you catch yourself saying “I’m only a student” or any other phrase that minimizes your knowledge and contributions, think about the implications. Yes, we still have a lot to learn, but we will always have a lot to learn. Use what knowledge you have now and let it grow—I bet you will be able to go a lot further.

1 Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard. Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Crown Business. 2010.

Star Wars, Frodo, and Scientific Presentations

You may not know it, but a scientific presentation can be as thrilling to watch as Star Wars Episode VI! *gasp* Did she just say that?! How can that be? Science is boring! Scientists are boring! They can only speak in monotone voices! There is NO WAY science can be exciting. When you break down the common components of a scientific presentation, it can be easy to see how science can come across as boring.

  1. Introduction: Relevant background is introduced to set the context for the remainder of the presentation.
  2. Question: What scientific question are you asking in your research? What is your hypothesis?
  3. Results: Data that answers your question and supports your hypothesis.
  4. Conclusion: A summary of the results and how they support your hypothesis.

Photo by JD Hancock under Creative Commons

But science IS exciting. A well-told scientific story contains all of the components of a dramatic film following an unlikely hero on an impossible journey (think Frodo and the Ring). Except the scientist is that hero—the protagonist on a quest to solve a problem so challenging that no one has been able to solve it before. What if we rewrite the common components of a scientific presentation with a little more storytelling flair?

  1. Introduce the characters and establish a backstory. This is important information for the audience to understand the context of the presentation Think about how quickly we learn about Luke’s unusual talents and his orphan status in Episode IV. What are the main things your audience needs to know to understand the rest of your presentation? Don’t forget to refer back to these things throughout the story as a reminder!
  2. Present the Quest. What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it important? What have other people done and how did they fail? What are you going to show us that is different?
  3. Begin your journey. You’ve presented your goal, now how are you going get there? Your plan of attack shouldn’t be a secret. Layout what you plan to do so the audience has something to follow—like a map with the trail marked. However, don’t feel like you can only talk about the positive experiments. Whether it is due to limited time or a scientist’s ego, many researchers only address the successful parts of their journey. No story is interesting without the hiccups along the way. A story that followed Frodo simply walking to Mount Doom with no challenges along the way would have been extremely boring. Although not ALL trials need to be addressed, a thoughtful presentation that includes some of the dark alleyways of failed experiments inherent to research adds color and intrigue to the story.
  4. Plot Twist! Along with number 3, the twists and turns of a scientific journey provide excitement. Did your original hypothesis change after a key experiment? Did a lab mistake result in a successful result therefore changing the trajectory of your research? Did you have an “Aha!” moment?
  5. The Happy Ending. No story is complete without a happy ending. Science is an ongoing multi-part series. Each episode has a feeling of resolution that leaves the audience feeling comfortable, but still a little excited for what comes next.

Science is Fun and Exciting! As scientists we can sometimes fall into the trap of boring presentation structures simply because that is how people have always done it. But we don’t have to! Your research is exciting. Just make sure other people know that as well.

Part 2: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

Practical Steps to Get Started in Undergraduate Research

Great Naomi. Thanks for Part 1 on getting started in undergraduate research. But how do I ACTUALLY find a lab??

Finding a lab to work in for the first time can be a little intimidating. How you go about doing this will depend on a few different factors including, but not limited to, research emphasis, university size, time limitations, pay vs volunteer preferences, etc. No matter your situation, here are a few steps to get you started in your journey to undergraduate research success.

    1. Come up with a list of professors to contact. The size of this list will depend on the size of your university where smaller universities will have fewer options than larger universities. Here are a few ways to come up with this list:
      • Write down some of your favorite classes and what you liked about them. Did you like the content of the class? Structure? Were the assignments interesting/fun/engaging? Is your opinion of the class based on the instructor? Based on this list, write down a list of professor’s names to contact. If you have had interaction with the professor, even better! (sidenote: always make an effort to have in-person interaction with any professor you take a class from. Even if the class has over 1000 students try to meet with the professor a few times over the course of the class)
      • Talk to your peers/upper classmen mentors/TAs. Ask which professors are taking undergraduate students and what the expectations are for undergraduates in the lab. Talk to your graduate student TAs (if you have them) and whether the lab they work in has undergrads and what the expectations are for them.
      • Go through your department directory and read professor bios/websites. Professors are notorious for not keeping updated bios or websites, but this will at least give you a general idea of the type of research a professor does. You can also see if they have a list of people in the lab and see how many undergraduates are working in the lab. Try looking at newer professors (at the associate professor level). These professors generally have more time to mentor students and may give undergraduates more responsibility than more established professors.
    2. Contact your list of professors. Simple enough, right? This might actually be the hardest part. If you have had interaction with the professor before, great. This will make contacting the professor 108, 439, 789 times easier. The next best thing is getting an in-person introduction from someone you already know in the lab. If neither of those 2 options is possible, go for the cold e-mail. Keep the e-mail short. Introduce yourself and tell them your major, year in school, GPA, pertinent classes you have taken (and the grades you earned in them), and a short sentence about why you are interested in doing research in their lab. You can also attach your resume/CV, but they might not read it. The best time to send cold e-mails is in the early afternoon (during or just after lunch) on a Tuesday or Wednesday. That way your e-mail won’t get lost in the abyss of e-mails professors wake up to in the morning (especially on Monday) and you won’t be forgotten over the weekend.
    3. And try again. If you don’t hear back from anyone within a week, try e-mailing them again as a “follow-up”. If you still don’t hear back, pick a few of your favorites and try catching them in their office. Professors aren’t as scary as you might think! Remember they are totally normal people…who happen to be really busy. If they are working at a university it means that a part of them enjoys teaching and mentoring. If you show that you are motivated to learn, professors will likely be more than happy to take you on.

Best of luck in your journey to find an undergraduate research lab home!

This is Part 2 in a series of posts for advice on doing undergraduate research. Find part 1 HERE and Part 3 HERE.


Part 1: So you want to be a Scientist?? (or doctor, or dentist, or physical therapist, or lab technician, or…….)

General Advice to Get Started in Undergraduate Research

The importance of undergraduate research experience on a resume is increasing as acceptance into graduate school, any healthcare related profession education, and employment opportunities in the scientific industry become more competitive. That is, as an undergrad, you NEED undergraduate research experience if you want to go to graduate school, go into a healthcare related field, or even to work as a laboratory technician in scientific industry. Although each situation is different (school size, what kind of program you want to go into, research interests, etc) here are a few pieces of advice to get you started in your pursuit of getting research experience as an undergraduate:

  • Get started ASAP! The sooner you get into a lab, the better. It’s okay if you don’t know what your EXACT research interests are yet. At this point, you probably need to get your feet a little wet to even figure out what type of research you enjoy. Science can sound a lot cooler in textbooks than it is on a day to day basis. Get in a lab. Learn some techniques. Start learning how to think like a scientist. After all, most graduate/professional programs aren’t looking for someone with experience doing XYZ, they’re looking to see if you have the capacity to analyze data, learn new things, and think like a researcher. Starting earlier will give you more time to contribute to the lab and hopefully get your name on a paper or two. Furthermore, you will have more time to develop a relationship with the professor which translates into a GOOD letter of recommendation.
  • Don’t be TOO picky…. At this point you don’t have very much, if any, research experience- especially if you want to join a lab earlier in your undergraduate career. Don’t fret if you aren’t doing research to cure cancer yet! Start by thinking about the classes that you have enjoyed the most and ask those professors if they have any space in their lab. If they don’t, look and see who is in their division/track/department (ex. if you really enjoyed molecular biology, look at the professors who teach molecular biology courses or are in the molecular biology division). Chances are you will be able to start learning basic techniques that will give you the foundation you need to succeed later on in your research career.
  • ….but choose your lab carefully. Be careful not to join a lab simply to get a letter of recommendation and be able to have it on your resume when all you did was wash dishes. Sure, sometimes you need to start at the bottom, but make sure that your time spent paying your dues will lead to research projects in the future. In the long run getting hands on experience is much more beneficial.
  • Find a professor who is willing to mentor you. Find out from your peers or upper classmen which professors are more likely to take on undergraduate students and actually mentor them. You might start by looking at associate professors who are generally more motivated to get research going and, therefore, may give you more responsibility. Younger professors also generally have more time to devote to training and mentoring. This can be beneficial not just for learning how to do research, but developing a relationship with a professor can be valuable for the rest of your career. As an undergrad you will most likely work closely with a graduate student or postdoc, but make sure that the professor knows who you are and how you contribute to the lab.
  • Record everything. Write everything down. Take pictures, videos, etc. Keep everything in a lab notebook to refer to later on. There is a steep learning curve when starting research and you will want to refer back to these notes later on. Keep everything as neat and organized as possible to make it easier on yourself later on. You may try writing things in lists while in lab and then going back later that day or week (but not too long afterwards or you will forget) and filling in the details of what you did. Keeping a good lab notebook is a skill that even the best scientist lacks. Believe me. Science will be So. Much. Easier. if you learn how to keep an organized lab notebook from the beginning.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be intimidated to ask questions. It is better to ask a question BEFORE breaking an instrument or ruining an experiment. However, don’t run to your grad student/postdoc/professor with every little thing. Spend ~15 minutes trouble shooting (Google is great!) by yourself and write down what things you tried before asking for help. This will help you start to think more like a scientist!
  • Try to work independently. Similar to number 6, try to work as independently as possible. You will probably still work closely with someone with more research experience, but don’t always rely on simply doing what people tell you to do. Try and get a small project as soon as possible (maybe after learning a few basic techniques in the lab). You may have to “prove” yourself first (for some professors, this is as simple as actually showing up to lab and wanting to do work) and it will definitely require more time and commitment, but in the end the ownership and pride you have over completing a project will be worth it!

Remember, your time as an undergraduate is meant to be spent learning and preparing for a future career. Don’t look at undergraduate research just as a requirement, but take the time to reap the benefits of having the opportunity to gain experience in a lab. This is one of the few places as an undergrad where you get to enjoy learning for the sake of learning and not just to cram for an exam or pull an all night-er to finish up a paper. Enjoy!

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more advice on joining a lab as an undergraduate! I’ll be giving step-by-step tips to find a lab, research at a small university, research at a large university, and more!

Special thanks to Jessie Peters, Jamie Schiffer, and Katherine Nadler for input