How to make undergraduate research worthwhile
Practices might differ from country to country, but undergraduate students can be better served in research, says Shaun Khoo.
One of the things that excited me about taking up a Canadian postdoctoral position was that, for the first time, I would get a chance to work with and mentor enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. I looked forward to the chance to gain mentorship skills while helping out future scientists, and maybe, eventually, freeing up some of my own time.
As an Australian, I had never been pressured to volunteer in a lab — most Australian students don’t do any undergraduate research unless they enroll in an extra honours year, because the law prohibits unpaid student placements that are not a course requirement. This hasn’t held back overall research productivity in Australia, but it is a stark contrast to the North American environment, where many undergraduates feel pressure to get research experience as soon as they begin university. Most graduate medical students, for example, have previous research experience, and North American graduate schools have come to expect this from applicants. In Canada, nearly 90% of graduate medical students have past research experience1.
Numerous articles extol2,3,4 the virtues of undergraduate research experience, but, unfortunately, evidence supporting the benefits of undergraduate research is limited. Most studies on the topic rely exclusively on self-reports that are corroborated less than 10% of the time by studies using more-direct measurements. For example, surveys find that undergraduate student researchers say that they have developed data-analysis skills — something that would normally involve lots of practical work — yet, when interviewed, most of them admit to never having done any data analysis.
Like many postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, I spend most of my time with undergraduate students working on technical skills that they might need to work in the lab, but that don’t necessarily improve their conceptual understanding. For example, if I teach a student how to use a cryostat, they might become proficient in slicing brains, but they won’t necessarily learn how synaptic transmission works. Even if we manage to instil excitement for the intricacies of research in our undergraduate students, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority that continue in academic research, there will be no permanent jobs — we might just be saddling our undergraduates with unrealistic expectations.
So how do we avoid wasting our time as mentors and our students’ time as learners and researchers? Here are my suggestions.
Consider long-term goals. Undergraduate students should reflect on how their research experiences will prepare them for professional success. Should they be aiming for research experiences that are based on their courses, because it will better improve their understanding of scientific concepts? Will a given opportunity help them to reach their career goals by getting into a professional graduate programme? Can they commit to staying with a research programme long enough to become effective and potentially be a co-author?
Acknowledge and offset opportunity cost. Undergraduate research requires significant time investments from both students and research supervisors. Undertaking such research might mean forgoing paid employment or other experiences, such as student societies, sport, performing arts or campus journalism and politics. Mentors can help undergraduate students by facilitating summer-scholarship applications or finding ways for students to get course credit for their work.
Train for diverse careers. Most undergraduate students will pursue non-research careers or join professional graduate programmes. Those who try to continue in academia will eventually face a bleak post-PhD academic job market. Just as PhD students need preparation for a wide range of careers, so do undergraduate students need to build a transferable skill set. Mentors can encourage undergraduate students to build communication skills by, for example, encouraging them to present in lab meetings, or facilitating teamwork by having groups of undergraduate students complete a project together.
Improve undergraduate research experiences. There’s limited non-anecdotal evidence that undergraduate research improves a given lab’s research productivity, or even student learning, but such research isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Before undergraduate students pad their CVs with research experience, they should reflect on what they will achieve by conducting research, and they should seek out meaningful projects to work on and develop relevant skills for their future career.
For mentors, we have an obligation to consider the career development of undergraduate students and, for the sake of our publication records, we should aim to work with students who can commit at least a year to our projects. And, as much as possible, we should try to take the pressure off undergraduate students to do research, so that it can be an enjoyable learning experience rather than a box they need to check.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at email@example.com.
Klowak, J., Elsharawi, R., Whyte, R., Costa, A. & Riva, J. Can. Med. Educ. J. 9, e4–e13 (2018).
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Start-ups: A sense of enterprise
Universities aid entrepreneurs by helping them to turn their research into companies. In return, universities can reap financial benefits. Michael Schrader knew he wanted to create a company, but he wasn't sure what it should do. After six years as a mechanical engineer in the automotive industry building plastic parts, in 2010 he began a master's degree in business administration at Harvard Business School in Boston, Massachusetts. In his quest for inspiration, he took a course in commercializing science at the Harvard Innovation Lab (i-lab). The class heard presentations from researchers who among them had developed 17 different technologies that they thought had commercial value. One in particular caught Schrader's attention — a method devised by two engineers from Tufts University that uses a silk protein to stabilize vaccines. The vaccines could be formulated as powders and mixed with water when it was time to inject them, or embedded into a film that dissolves on the tongue like a breath-freshening strip. And, because they would not need to be refrigerated, they would be easier than conventional vaccines to distribute in places such as sub-Saharan Africa. Along with other members of his class — an economics master's student, a former physics student earning a law degree and a postdoc in the chemistry department — Schrader spent the next few months looking into potential markets for the technology, making connections with business mentors and investors, and putting together a business plan. In 2012, the team founded Vaxess Technologies, which is attempting to bring vaccine formulations to market. “We probably are a perfect model for how universities can forge together entrepreneurs and technologies to create companies,” says Schrader, now chief executive of Vaxess. The technology has not yet entered clinical testing, but the company has raised more than US$5 million, hired 11 employees, and started filing patents of its own in addition to those it licensed from Tufts University. Although universities often license technology developed in their research laboratories to existing companies that are looking for new products, they also move discoveries off the bench and into the real world by encouraging inventors to start businesses from scratch. They offer classes in entrepreneurship, introduce researchers to investors and business experts, and even launch their own venture-capital funds. The path is trickier for life-sciences spin-offs, which take more time and money to get off the ground, than for companies based on software or electronics. And Europe has not caught up with the United States in its ability to create businesses. But universities are banking on entrepreneurs turning some of their research into products (see 'Start-up sampler'). Table 1: Start-up sampler Universities seeking to commercialize research spin off scores of companies. These examples show the range of entrepreneurship spawned in the life sciences. Full size table Hubs of innovation “We exist on taxpayer money. We have an obligation to try to get our research out into society.” Universities tend to see commercialization as part of their remit to create and disseminate knowledge. “We exist on taxpayer money. We have an obligation to try to get our research out into society,” says Regis Kelly, director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences known as QB3. The institute is a collaboration between the Berkeley, Santa Cruz and San Francisco campuses of the University of California. It supports life-sciences research across the campuses and tries to bring that research to market by partnering with industry and promoting entrepreneurship. Part of the mission of the University of Colorado Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute is to aid students and faculty members who want to start new companies, says Jana Watson-Capps, associate director of the institute. “It fits with what we want to do in providing an education for our students so that they can find jobs and be good at those jobs,” she says. A similar attitude is common in the United Kingdom. “We think it's important here in Oxford to see that the fruits of our research are actually developed to benefit society,” says Linda Naylor, managing director of Isis Innovation, a company created by the University of Oxford to commercialize its research. Harvard's i-lab, which was opened in late 2011 to help students in any of the university's schools to develop businesses, is a relatively new entry in a long line of such efforts at many academic institutions. Students learn about idea generation, business-plan development and marketing. Budding entrepreneurs can attend workshops on specific hurdles that they are likely to encounter, such as how to apply for a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the federal government. A group of 'experts in residence' provides students with business expertise and introduces them to potential investors. The i-lab holds competitions such as the President's Challenge, which awards ideas that address the world's big problems. Vaxess took the challenge's top prize of $70,000 in 2012, as well as winning $25,000 in Harvard's Business Plan Contest the same year. Because the main thrust of the i-lab is education, the university never takes a stake in any of the companies created there, says managing director Jodi Goldstein. Any intellectual property developed in a Harvard research lab belongs to the university and must be licensed, but ideas generated in the i-lab belong to the students. Goldstein hopes that the i-lab can help a future Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates to pursue their billion-dollar idea while still completing their degree. “We have several pretty famous dropouts around here, and I don't think that's necessary anymore,” she says. As well as education and expertise, the i-lab provides a workspace for fledging companies. Meeting rooms, computer workstations and private storage space are available, as are a workshop for building prototypes and a pair of 3D printers. The i-lab is also planning to address one of the stumbling blocks that often trips up biology-based companies: finding a space to turn a discovery made in a university lab into a more marketable version. It is building a 1,400-square-metre wet lab with 36 research benches. When Vaxess reached that stage, it moved to LabCentral in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The provider of office and laboratory space takes care of regulatory requirements and provides administrative support and laboratory personnel so that new companies don't have to spend time and money setting up their own space. It opened in 2013 with a $5-million grant from the Massachusetts government (part of an initiative to bolster life-sciences business in the state) along with support from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the venture-capital arm of health-care giant Johnson & Johnson. Schrader considers this industry–government–academia web of support essential to his company's launch. “We have really taken advantage of this growing entrepreneurial ecosystem,” he says. At QB3 in California, start-ups can rent lab space for as little as $85–100 per square metre per month. Unlike conventional landlords, who prefer to rent out an entire space, start-ups can rent a few hours in a fume cupboard or a shelf in a freezer, for example. “You only pay for what you actually use,” Kelly says. Charging is important, mainly because it is a way of weaning its users off the university teat. “It gets people more used to being in the private sector,” he says. The need for lab space is just one reason why starting a life-sciences company can be much more challenging than, say, launching a business based on software. Any sort of pharmaceutical or medical device is subject to regulatory requirements, which leads to safety tests and clinical trials “If you're going to make a new drug you might need ten years and a billion dollars,” says Watson-Capps. These time and capital requirements make it much more difficult to drum up investment for a life-sciences start-up. Although investors might be willing to risk a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a promising software idea, most life-sciences companies need initial funding of a few million dollars. “Obviously, people don't want to throw away a million dollars, so they have to do a lot more due diligence,” Kelly says. And because the time to realize a return on the investment can be so long, trading equity in the company in exchange for, say, legal services is not as popular as it is for other types of start-ups, he adds. These disparities are apparent in the investment statistics. Of the $77.3 billion in venture capital invested in the United States in 2015, software companies took in $31.2 billion — 40% of the total. Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology received a mere 12%. Playing catch up Europe lags behind the United States in producing start-ups of any kind, but the situation is improving. “We're certainly seeing a lot more spin-outs than we were a few years ago,” says Naylor. “There is more money around that is willing to go into the early stage.” Vaxess Technologies are using silk proteins (L), which are extracted from cocoons (R), to stabilize vaccines. Image: Patrick Ho/Vaxess She attributes that growth, in part, to the UK government's creation of the Seed Enterprise Investment Scheme in 2012, which provides tax breaks to investors in start-up companies. “The UK has been one of the leaders in providing tax incentives for investors in start-ups of all types,” says Karen Wilson, who studies entrepreneurship and innovation at Bruegel, an economic think tank in Brussels. Other countries across Europe, as well as Australia, have created their own tax incentives for investors modelled on the British scheme, although Wilson says that they're often controversial, derided as tax breaks for the wealthy. In the United States, tax incentives vary by state. The biggest legal change in the United States to promote spin-offs came in 1980, Wilson says, with the passage of the Bayh–Dole act, which allowed researchers to profit from inventions created with federal funding. US and UK Universities have even been creating their own venture funds in recent years to invest in their spin-offs. The University of Cambridge, UK, created Cambridge Innovation Capital in 2013 with an initial fund of £50 million ($71 million). In 2014, the University of California began a $250-million fund. In May 2015, Isis launched Oxford Sciences Innovation to raise an initial £300 million from investors. And, in January, University College London opened the £50 million UCL Technology Fund, and the University of Bristol, UK, started its own enterprise fund (see 'Innovation income'). Box 1: Licensing technology: Innovation income When it comes to commercializing research, universities often emphasize their desire to spread their discoveries, but they also reap financial rewards from licensing technology and investing in spin-off companies. Isis Innovation, for instance, took in £24.6 million (US$34.9 million) in revenue in 2015, of which it returned £13.6 million to its founder Oxford University, UK, more than double 2014's £6.7 million. The university also earned more than £30 million in cash and stocks from the 2014 sale of the games and technology company NaturalMotion (in which it had a stake of about 9%) to Zynga in San Francisco, California, for $527 million. NaturalMotion was co-founded in 2001 by Torstein Reil, then a PhD student in Oxford's zoology department studying neural systems. Reil used his research to create computer simulations that more accurately mimic how animals move, and turned them into a company that makes popular games such as Clumsy Ninja. But licensing income tends to make up only a small part of a university's revenue stream. Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which last year issued 50 licenses to patents it owns and saw 14 firms started on the basis of its technology, had licensing revenue of $16.1 million in 2015. But that is a fraction of Harvard's 2015 budget of nearly $4.5 billion, of which the university spent $876 million on research. Jana Watson-Capps, associate director of the University of Colorado Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute, says that income from all licensing — not just from spin-off companies — is valuable to the university and goes back into funding research. However, she adds, licensing income is relatively small and comes so long after the initial investment that it's not a major consideration at the institute. A similar attitude prevails at Oxford. Although the university welcomes the licensing income, it's not the only motive for promoting spin-offs, says Linda Naylor, managing director of Isis Innovation. “The university is very clear it wants to create impact,” she says. “They're not there to make any quick money.” Show more Entrepreneurial ecosystems in which inventors can find facilities, investors and business experts to help them to launch their companies are important for creating successful spin-offs, and they've been growing around many European universities, Wilson says. “There are an increasing number of these entrepreneurial hubs that are emerging across Europe, which are spawning these innovative high-growth firms,” she says. In the United Kingdom, Cambridge is popular for life-sciences start-ups, and in Munich, Germany, the focus is mobile technology. In Switzerland, start-ups are clustered around the University of Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, where they focus on computing and technology. In Finland, Espoo is a hub: in 2010, three institutions combined to form Aalto University, which has strengths in communications, energy and design. Linked by a bridge across the Øresund strait, Copenhagen and Malmo in Sweden, make up another life-sciences centre. In the past year, however, the influx of refugees from the Middle East has led to a tightening of border security and made crossing the bridge more difficult for everyone. The clampdown on migration within Europe, says Wilson, is making it harder for fledging companies to grow and spread. Expansion of their markets has always been challenging for start-ups in Europe, she says, where pushing into another country means dealing with differences not only in language and culture but also in taxes and other regulations. Many European companies get to a point at which, when they need to grow into a bigger market, they move to the United States, either of their own accord or at the insistence of their investors. “If you have a successful start-up in Italy it's much easier to go scale it in the US than it is to try to scale it across Europe,” Wilson says. But many life-sciences companies won't grow on their own, particularly if their innovation is a drug — their endgame is often to be acquired by a large pharmaceutical company once they have advanced their therapy to a promising stage. Although life-sciences companies demand more resources than other types of start-up, they have one characteristic that can make them uniquely appealing to investors — the potential for curing a disease or improving human health. As Kelly points out, “Almost any rich person has a sick relative.” If investors are going to risk their money, knowing that many of the companies they invest in will fail, they may prefer investments that have a potential for making a difference, he says. “If they're going to lose money on a business, they might as well lose it on something that could have some benefit to society.” Search our job roles in CaliforniaNature Careers California Team https://naturecareerscalifornia.com
Uncertain Airspace: Changing career paths is disorienting and exhilarating
Pursuing a new career makes PhD student Jonathan Wosen feel like a baby goose—and he loves it. Sometimes I ask people, “if you weren’t studying biology, what would you do?” At first, they’re taken aback, and I don’t blame them. PhD students are self-selected for a certain kind of persistent, focused thinking; that’s what it takes to become the world’s leading expert on your thesis project. We are as deeply immersed in our work as a fish in water. That makes asking a graduate student to consider a different field of study a lot like asking a fish to imagine life on dry land. Initially, there’s some flailing of fins and gasping for air, but the answers come. “I think I would do computer science, or engineering.” “Maybe chemistry, or biochemistry. Is that too close to biology to count?” “It would be fun to try math.” In my experience, the responses are all variations on a single theme: most students would opt for some other STEM field. But my answer doesn’t fit the mold. I would go into journalism. From an early age, I was awed by newscasters’ power to shape my perception of the world. With a single report, they could expose corruption, challenge governments, and make me care about people and places I had never heard of. These experiences left me with a deep interest in how news stories are told as well as what and whose stories are told. Nevertheless, science remained my primary passion. Ever since elementary school, when I told my principal that I wanted to be a lab technician, I’ve never considered another career. That’s pretty odd given that there are no scientists in my family, who emigrated from Ethiopia in the 80s before taking up low-wage jobs in east San Diego. I chalk it up to all the hours spent watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and The Magic School Buswhen I wasn’t watching the news. The logic behind applying to graduate school was simple: I wanted to be a scientist, scientists have PhDs, and therefore I should get one. If only what followed had been so straightforward. Progress on my project, which involves growing finicky stem cells to learn about celiac disease, has been excruciatingly slow. I love learning about science and sharing my knowledge with others, but the day-to-day minutiae of my research project does wear me down. Last year, during my third year of graduate school, I was constantly anxious and stressed, and, worst of all, didn’t tell anyone that I was struggling. I felt obligated to stick to the script I had written for myself: the boy who dreamt of becoming a scientist and never stopped until he reached his goal. My family and friends had bought into this narrative too, and I didn’t want to disappoint them. Plus, deep down, I still hoped to become a professor and help diversify academia; it was difficult to think that there would be one fewer black faculty member. At first, I was ambivalent about pursuing a career in science communication, and kept telling myself that I should focus on research. I was interested enough to take a course, though, and there I found a community of students, professors, and professionals who cared as much about public outreach as I did. Part of the reason I first got interested in biomedical research was because of the public benefits of studying health and disease. I realized that empowering people with an understanding of major scientific discoveries was another form of public service. After feeling siloed within my own project, it was refreshing to hear journalists talk about reading up on a wide range of scientific discoveries and having the freedom to ask basic questions. Throughout the course, I could feel my natural excitement and scientific curiosity start to return. I checked out books from the library on science writing, contacted editors for freelancing opportunities, and shared my aspirations with friends and family. So far, their responses have all been positive. So that’s where I’m at right now. I think that finishing my PhD will open new and better opportunities, so that’s the plan. In the meanwhile, I intend to get as much communications experience as I can—blogging, podcasting, and writing for publications in the coming years. In eastern Greenland (trust me, this is relevant), barnacle geese nest in towering, rocky cliffs that keep young goslings away from predators but also away from food. Eventually, the goslings must leave their nests for the green fields below. There’s only one problem: they can’t fly. What they do instead is literally jump off the cliff, spreading their tiny, fluffy bodies to create drag and desperately try to steer themselves towards a (relatively) soft landing. It’s a wonder that any of them survive. In a sense, I feel like one of those goslings right now. Suspended in uncertain airspace, embracing the unknown, steering myself towards a better future. Oh, and hoping that I don’t crash on the way down. Jonathan Wosen is an immunology PhD student at Stanford. You can expect more writing from this young gosling as he learns to navigate the world of science communication.Nature Careers California Team https://naturecareerscalifornia.com