When I was considering which colleges to apply to, research opportunities were a huge deciding factor. I had enjoyed science fairs and in-class lab experiments in high school, but I was ready to dive deep into a more intellectually stimulating environment - academic research. I knew that this would be the best way to apply all of my science education and gain experience for medical school. Let me give you some background about my research experience before going into some tips and tricks!
Before college, I had no independent lab research experience. I wasn’t even sure what academic research would look like, so I decided to spend the summer after my college freshman year in a research lab. Through the guidance of my high school AP Biology teacher, I landed a research internship in the Systems Biology Department at Sandia National Laboratories, working on stem cell therapy! I remember my first few weeks, I was so overwhelmed by the new environment, but I worked diligently with my mentor to piece together knowledge and techniques that I had only read about thus far. This was such an invaluable opportunity to not only master basic biology/biochemistry research techniques and present my project at a poster presentation, but to solidify my decision to pursue a more long term opportunity at my university.
That next fall semester, I began applying to research groups at UC Berkeley. I spent almost four months emailing professors and graduate students. This was the general template I used. Remember to attach your resume and potentially your transcript to demonstrate your academic experience thus far.
Dear Dr [insert their name here]:
My name is Navya and I am an undergraduate student here at UC Berkeley double majoring in Public Health and Molecular Cell Biology.
[Briefly explained my research experience from my internship at Sandia Labs]
[Described why I was specifically interested in their lab and demonstrated that I had read 1 or more of their published papers]
I would love to chat further about your research and any opportunities to get involved!
After a number of email correspondences and interviews, I landed an undergraduate research position in the Ross Wilson Lab at the Innovative Genomics Institute. I was thrilled to be working on CRISPR-Cas9 research, something I had learned about in AP Biology where my love for biology began! I continued in the Wilson Lab for 2.5 years, spending almost 15-20 hours per week during the summers and 10-12 hours during the school semesters.
I can now say that this has genuinely been one of the most formative experiences in my life. I have interacted, collaborated, and learned from so many scientists. I have developed my own protocols and learned to move independently in the lab setting. I know this experience is going to be such an asset as I pursue a career in biomedical science!
The Wilson Lab was where I honed in on my “wet lab” skills, but during my senior year of college, I also chose to take on an honors thesis project in public health. This became a year-long endeavor in which I applied my knowledge from public health courses to a research project of my choosing. I formulated my own research question, conducted literature review, and completed data analysis with R programming. With the guidance of my thesis advisor, I wrote my paper and presented my findings at the School of Public Health Honors Symposium. This experience inspired me to consider pursuing an MD/MPH dual degree.
As you can hopefully see, research has been a huge part of my life in the last four years. I would love to chat more in depth about my experiences, but in the meantime, here are some tips that I have for landing research opportunities in college!
1. Utilize your network! Reach out to your high school teachers and ask if they have any contacts or leads. Senior students at your respective universities are also a great source! Often times you can try to replace students who are graduating.
2. Familiarize yourself with any application processes at your universities. UC Berkeley for example has a research database of new opportunities that are released every semester. Students can apply directly on this website and get academic units for their research! Here’s a link : https://urap.berkeley.edu/.
3. Don’t be afraid to cold-email or directly approach professors. I was very interested in certain fields of biology so I spent considerable time emailing labs that were of interest to me. Pro tip: when you email them, make sure to explain your interest and try to read some of their published papers to prove your commitment! You can email Principal Investigators, Post-docs, graduate students, or even undergraduate students.
4. Be patient! Finding the right opportunity is a challenging process and often takes time. Just apply broadly, talk to as many professors as possible, and keep an open mind.
I hope this was helpful! Even though much of my experience is specific to UC Berkeley, these tips can be extended to any university or program. I would also love to work 1:1 with any of you who may be thinking about research. We can find opportunities in your local areas, work on emails and applications to programs, or even just chat through my experiences. Good luck!!
Navya is a consultant on the Study Hall Consulting team. She recently graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2021 with a double major in Molecular Cell Biology and Public Health. She is currently working as a medical assistant and applying to medical school. For more application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.