Find a Mentor

Strategy for finding a mentor for research:

Identify particular labs/mentors whose work seems interesting to you and approach them by email.

Bio 200/500 list of potential mentors

To generate a list of faculty to contact, you should focus on areas of biology and/or medicine that seem interesting to you – from course work or other exposure.  You can scan the Bio 200/500 approved mentors list for a brief overview of research areas of many faculty who have been approved and are willing to be mentors. 

Try to find several faculty members (3-7) whose work seems interesting to you.  Send an email to each faculty member asking for an appointment.  In this letter, say WHY YOU PICKED THEIR NAMES/AREA OF RESEARCH and what specifically interests you about this area [i.e., liked this topic in intro course, have always had an interest in topic due to family history or personal experience, etc.]. Briefly explain your goals for the research experience and possible future plans for career, where you are in school, and what relevant courses you have taken.  If you have done well in your coursework, don't hesitate to say so.  Briefly describe any prior research experience and any techniques that you are familiar or comfortable performing (as PCR, Western blotting, etc.).  Do not worry if you have had no experience.  No one is born knowing how to do research.  This is an opportunity for you to learn techniques, experimental design and other elements of doing research.  Your note should be short but should highlight your interests and any of your qualifications.

If you need a paying job, especially if you are a first or second year student, say so. If you are eligible for work-study mention that. Include a phrase like: "While I will be happy to start by performing routine chores, my hope is that I will also be able to work my way into participation in research."

Wait a week or so for replies.  If none are forthcoming, try once more with these same faculty, indicating that you are resending a previous inquiry.  If after two tries you do not get a positive response, determine if there are some additional people whose work interests you and contact them.

Once you have a list, you may also visit the DBBS faculty website which also provides summaries of the research interests of the many (>350) researchers [at Hilltop and the Medical school] that are part of the ‘Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences.’  This site is well maintained and is organized alphabetically and by Division Programs.

Don't hesitate to ask someone whose research interests you – whether they are on the approved mentors list or not.  The worst that can happen is they say no.  Do note however, that some clinically-oriented research is not appropriate for Bio 200/500.  In this case Bio 265 might be the appropriate choice to obtain credit. 

Preparing for an interview:

IMPORTANT: If you have worked in a lab before, you will almost certainly be asked about it. You should be prepared to say what you did and especially WHY you did it. You should be prepared to describe in a few sentences how the work you did fits into a larger biological context.

Before you go to talk with a potential mentor, try reading one of their papers.  You will not understand everything, but you should be prepared to ask a question or two about its content. Also be prepared to answer the questions about any of your prior research experience: "How would you go about making 100 ml solution of 0.1 M NaCl?"

At your interview, be certain to ask with whom you will be working with on an everyday basis.  In most labs you will most likely begin by learning from one or several lab members (technicians, post-docs and grad students).  You will need to learn some basic methods and skills and be introduced to the project goals and strategies.  It is common to have a ‘lab’ or ‘bench’ mentor with whom you will work on a daily basis.  Arrange to talk with that person before accepting any offered position.  You may ask them questions such as: Dr. X has said she would be glad to have me do research in the lab, but my question for you is: Will you be glad to be responsible for an undergraduate?”  OR, “Have you ever worked with an undergraduate researcher before?”  Make sure that this person is a good fit for you and what you hope to achieve with your experience in the lab.

Practical considerations for a successful experience:

Be certain that you leave two big blocks of time in your schedule. You will be expected to spend 10-12 hrs/wk in the lab for 3 units of credit. 2 days x 6 hrs/day is far preferable to 6 days x 2 hrs/day.

The amount you can do during the semester is limited by the demands of your courses. Guard against spending too much time in the lab. It is a considerable temptation, if things are going well, to find it more agreeable to be in the lab than studying for some course that you are not enthralled with. Resist the temptation.  In general, limit yourself to 10-12 hrs/wk.

Initially, you will interact mostly with your lab mentor.  You will be learning techniques and discovering how the research questions are addressed.  This requires an investment of your time and energy and ALSO THE TIME, ENERGY, and RESOURCES [grant money] of the lab.  Usually the payoff for both the lab and you comes after several semesters, when you begin to function more independently and interact with others in the research setting as an equal.  As your project progresses you will interact not only with your ‘lab mentor,’ but other researchers in the lab [and in other labs with similar interests] and the lab head (PI = principle investigator).  Do not be discouraged if, at first, you do not spend a lot of time working directly with the PI. 

If you still have questions after careful inspection of the information on this page, please contact Dr. Ken Olsen (kolsen@wustl.edu) or Patrick Clark (pclark@wustl.edu).


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