What do Undergraduates Gain from a Research Experience?

Sarah Elgin, professor of biology; biochemistry and molecular biophysics and education

When you give a college student the choice between a summer full of lazy mornings languishing on the couch or a summer getting up early to engage in scientific research in a full-fledged lab, the choice might seem to be easy. However, at Washington University in St. Louis and at other schools across the country, there are numerous undergraduates taking advantage of summer research opportunities. Washington University has a long tradition of undergraduate participation in research, one developed further by programs created by Sarah Elgin, Ph.D., professor of biology; biochemistry and molecular biophysics; and education in Arts & Sciences with financial support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Sarah Elgin
Sarah Elgin

Elgin has spent her career as a genomic biologist at Washington University in St. Louis often embracing those individuals who are not usually a part of scientific research and creating scientific research opportunities for them. She continues to participate in a program that places approximately 35 fellows in a university lab individually to do summer research. Elgin believes that the goal of education is to learn “how knowledge is created in a discipline,” and a summer research opportunity is the first step to achieving this goal.

Elgin spoke Feb. 19, 2006, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held Feb. 16-20 in St. Louis.

In an attempt to evaluate the efficacy of the summer science research program, Elgin looked to a collaborative national effort. With additional grant funding from HHMI, she developed a collaborative group to work with David Lopatto, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Grinnell College, who created an online assessment tool for the undergraduate summer research participants to take after their research experience. In its first year, 1,135 students participated in the online survey. The second year brought approximately 2,000 students’ participation.

What Elgin and Lopatto have discovered is that the summer research program is not only working, but it is acting as a confirmatory event in many of these students’ lives. The majority of students responded that they had been planning a career in the sciences, and that the summer experience confirmed their desire to pursue such a career. Interestingly, the percentage of students — 4% — who decided to change their future career plans from science to another field was equaled by the percentage of students who changed career plans from a non-science field to one of a scientific bent.

Additionally, through the national collaboration, Elgin and colleagues have been able to look for differences and similarities between collegiate and university summer internship programs. Through the online survey results, Elgin and colleagues have determined that the quality of mentoring at both types of institutions is similar. Moreover, males and females as well as minorities all have similarly positive experiences in summer research programs, regardless of institution type.

“At a college level, generally the major professor of the lab is also the “bench” mentor, meaning that the professor instructs the summer interns in appropriate techniques throughout their research experience,” Elgin said, in explaining the difference in college and university experiences. “However, at a university level, the major professor provides oversight, but is unlikely to be the ‘bench’ mentor — most likely the post-docs and current graduate students will be mentoring the summer intern at the bench.”

An important bonus is that there seems to be an increase in self-reported independent learning throughout the following fall and spring semesters in students who engaged in the summer research internships.

“All of this is supportive of the idea that it is important to engage students in summer undergraduate research opportunities,” said Elgin. “It helps students realize themselves as contributors — as investigators — in their field.”

As the HHMI grant progresses and comes up for renewal, Dr. Kathy Miller, the current Washington University Program Director , and colleagues will be adding some key components, such as organized “mentoring” training for graduate students and post-docs. The training will not only allow graduate students and post-docs at the university level to learn to be effective mentors to the summer research students, but also give them an opportunity to evaluate their position as “mentees” of the principal investigator of their labs.

Overall, Elgin and colleagues have successfully created summer programs in which undergraduate students can discover, from their own efforts, how knowledge is created in science — and thus are working to build a scientific workforce with early confirmation that science can be fun, interesting and incredibly rewarding, even more so than a summer spent on the couch.