Feature

Over the past several decades, support for undergraduate research has expanded dramatically. More universities are hosting research conferences. They're granting credit for lab work and funding more research assistants. Even fields as dissimilar as history and physics have realized that providing hands-on experience with real research may be the best way to attract and retain new students.

For insight into what it takes to make undergraduate research participation succeed, the Monitor spoke to undergraduate research assistants (RAs), graduate students, postdocs and principal investigators at three psychology labs: the emotional experiences lab of Boston College psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, the mood and anxiety disorders lab of Stanford psychologist Ian Gotlib, PhD, and the primate cognitive neuroscience lab of Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser, PhD.

The labs differ in the populations they study, the methods they use and the types of questions they ask, but they are all similar in at least one way: They get rave reviews from many of the students who work in them. Psychologists working at these labs offered these tips:

1. Offer an experience they can't get anywhere else

One of the keys to a successful lab is recruiting motivated, talented students, and one of the best ways to do that is to offer potential RAs the chance to participate in a cutting-edge research program and learn valuable skills while doing it.

It also helps to be the only game around. In Stanford's psychology department, for example, Gotlib runs the only lab that regularly sees clinical patients and trains undergraduates to interact with them. That makes it an almost obligatory stop for Stanford students who want to pursue clinical degrees after graduation. And with projects that focus on different disorders, age groups and methods, including computer-based cognitive tests and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), students who come to the lab have a variety of options. As a result, the lab never has difficulty finding RAs, and many of the students who come to the lab as freshman go on to complete honors theses or fifth-year master's degrees.

In Feldman Barrett's lab, students have the opportunity to learn how to conduct experience sampling, psychophysiological measurement and sophisticated computer-based tests, and the lab is now beginning to conduct fMRI studies as well. "Students not only learn the theory and practice behind each experimental procedure, but they also learn how to think about relating different types of measurement when testing a hypothesis," she says.

The same combination of cutting-edge research and training in scientific methods holds true for Hauser's primate cognitive neuroscience lab. The lab is only place at Harvard where students can study primate behavior and cognition. Some undergraduates have the opportunity to do field work at the Cayo Santiago monkey colony in Puerto Rico, and all students start learning how experiments are designed and implemented as soon as they enter the lab. As a result, active recruitment is largely unnecessary; word of mouth is sufficient to bring new students--often "roommates of roommates of roommates," says Hauser--into the lab.

Of course, having an attractive research program and a variety of training opportunities are only the beginning. Once students join the lab, they need to find a supportive and intellectually challenging environment, or all of those "roommates of roommates" will be warned away, not encouraged to join.

2. Let them know their contributions are valued

An open environment in which undergraduates feel comfortable sharing their opinions is critical to the success of the lab and the students working in it, says Cory Miller, a graduate student in Hauser's lab. According to Miller, even undergrads who have just joined the lab can sometimes have useful insights into the lab's work. The open atmosphere also helps in the long term, he says, because it gets students interested in the research, and interested students are more likely to stay for several semesters or years and make lasting contributions.

Feldman Barrett also believes it is important to encourage students to ask questions and voice their opinions, and to let them know that this is an essential part of the scientific process. "This moves them away from being performance-oriented and worried about a grade, to being intellectually curious and not afraid to engage ideas, even when they don't have a quick answer," she says.

Iamlin Conner Christensen, a Boston College graduate student who started her academic job search earlier this year, says that working in the lab impressed on her the importance of listening to what undergraduates have to say--a practice she hopes to continue in her own lab. "Undergraduates are great sources of creativity, and they can bring fresh ideas to the scientific process," she says. "What I'd like to do in my own lab is provide organization--a framework--but also provide the opportunity for them to be collaborators in the scientific process."

Jonathan Flombaum, a graduate student at Yale who completed his undergraduate thesis in Hauser's lab, says that students in the lab feel like part of a team because they are treated that way as soon as they join the lab. "From the outset Marc is very, very explicit that he wants everybody participating in lab meetings; he wants everybody contributing their ideas."

"I don't treat the undergrads any different than I treat my grad students and postdocs," agrees Hauser. "There's a real spirit of working together as a team."

3. Provide a clear path from grunt work to collaboration

Research assistants often start out working on lower-level tasks like behavior coding or library research, work that usually serves as a good introduction to the lab's methods but can sometimes be repetitive or even boring. Unless RAs have a good sense of where the work is leading--both for the project and for themselves--they may not last long.

That is why it is critical, especially in large labs with numerous RAs and research projects, to make sure that new RAs know how their work fits into the big picture, says Jon Rottenberg, a fifth-year graduate student in Gotlib's lab. "It's easy to lose sight of what makes these parts go here," he explains. "When I meet with RAs, that's the first part I talk about: 'It may seem strange that you're being asked to make these judgements, but here's how it fits into the project.' I think labs that shortchange that end up burning through RAs pretty quickly."

Feldman Barrett's students are encouraged from day one to feel like partners in the lab's work, she says. "Grunt work" is minimized and students are challenged to become part of the lab's intellectual work by reading scientific papers, developing ideas and study designs, and implementing experiments. The result is that by their second year in the lab, she says, many students are leading their own research projects.

It is also important to show undergraduates that even if they spend their first few quarters running cognitive tests or cleaning cages, they will eventually have the chance to play a larger role. In Hauser's lab, for instance, students know that most RAs who spend a year or more in the lab will, if they work hard enough, be an author on a published paper.

Stanford senior David Hardisty has worked in Gotlib's lab since the second quarter of his freshman year. When he first joined the lab, he spent most of his time on support tasks, but within a couple of quarters he was screening prospective study participants over the phone and learning how to administer clinical interviews. Now he is what Rottenberg calls an "uber-RA": an experienced undergraduate who helps coordinate the lab's activities. Knowing that that kind of position lies on the horizon--and that there is a clear sequence of steps to get there--can be an important motivator for new lab members.

4. Challenge students to think critically and act responsibly

Feldman Barrett believes that psychology offers a unique environment for students to learn about the scientific method, and about critical thinking in general. Because psychology is about human behavior, students can see how the phenomena they are studying in the lab play out in their own lives. And because there may be fewer highly technical procedures and devices than in other fields, they are free to focus their attention on the concepts that lie behind the experiments.

"Thomas Jefferson said that a liberal education makes for a better citizen, and I think educating students in the scientific method achieves the same end," says Feldman Barrett. "The basis of the scientific method is the ability to take a deeply held belief and treat it as a hypothesis to be tested. To the extent that you force students to do this in the lab, they can't help but do it in other parts of their lives."

Kirsten Lebo, a former Boston College undergraduate who worked in Feldman Barrett's lab for three years, agrees. "The scientific method teaches you to question things that you take for granted, even your own behavior," she says. "Research has its greatest effects when you get a result you're not expecting and it forces you to question further. That's where you really learn about psychology."

Psychology labs can also serve as workshops for learning about ethics. For instance, while the research in Hauser's lab is entirely noninvasive and the RAs almost never come into direct contact with the monkeys, Hauser still is careful to address animal care concerns at the beginning of each semester.

"One of the things we usually take on right away is animal ethics questions--both animal rights in general and the ethics of working with animals," he says. As a result, when students leave the lab they not only know how to design experiments; they also know how to treat their subjects humanely.

In Gotlib's lab, the challenges are different but the lessons are similar. Issues of responsibility and conscientiousness are important in almost any research group, but they become critical in a lab that deals with clinical populations. Forgetting to meet a participant who has been part of the study for years and who may have driven for hours to get to the lab could be disastrous, and failing to respect a participant's right to confidentiality is simply not an option. As a result, says Gotlib, "I think the RAs learn how to be more responsible people."