Research at Undergraduate Insitutions

Ellen Klann emklann at
Wed Oct 29 11:35:44 EST 1997

Here is a summary of of the responses I have received so far.  A bit of
difference in how people viewed this task.  
1.  Some insisted that undergrad is the same as grad research except for
the pace, while others insisted that the two were very different.
2.  Some have some nice equipment to center projects on while others do
3.  Two people mentioined that I might be shooting myself in the foot by
asking these questions in a newsgroup were potential search committees
may be lurking.  This really surprises me.  I think it is a sign of
someone who is serious about doing the job and doing it well.  This
seems like the classic situation of not asking your collegues any
questions lest they find out you are not omniscient.

The responses:

You might get a good response to this on the plant-ed newsgroup (of 
course, it's read by a lot of  the people who'll be interviewing you, so 
maybe that's not such a hot idea.)

It very much depends on the institution as to what's availible.  For 
instance, where my husband teaches (State University System, 15,000 
students, 19 bio faculty, BS and MS degrees) they have 1 research grade 
microscope for  the whole department, and the faculty member who's room 
it was in  locked his room on purpose so people wouldn't "bother" him  
by using the scope  (he's  retired now, thank god!). One centrifuge (not 
analytical), one incubator, one UV light box, a greenhouse.  No EM, no 
radiation license till last year (took a year to get one) no seperate 
research lab space (all labs  are teaching labs), poor network (though 
its improving). About 1/10 th of the bio faculty has funded research, 
and that's low level funding. The department just got a PCR machine.  
This year, for  the first time, they offered start up funds to incoming 
faculty-$10,000, every purchase approved by the Dean (the Dean decided 
the new faculty member didn't  need some items, so in effect he got a 
lot less than he was promised)

In contrast, I attended a small liberal arts college ten plus years
On paper, it sounds like it should be  much worse (2000 students, 3 bio 
faculty, BS degrees  only).  Yet we had a better quality research scope, 
SEM, TEM, 2 centrifuges, a greenhouse, research space (though not much) 
and an excellent network (even then-the CEO of Digital Equipment was on 
the board of directors of  the college).2 of 3 faculty members had 
funded research, again low level.

We have friends in various small institutions and equipment quality and 
quantity varies all over the place.  I've been told that if you end up 
in a place near a large university and set up a collaboration with 
someone there, you get the best of both worlds.

I'd be interested in what you get  for  replies, as I'm interested in 
this as well.


I just got my job at an undergrad. institute.  I came from a huge,
internationally reputatable AIDS lab and managed to convince them that I
could do molecular ecology - that it didn't matter whether it was
bacterial DNA you were shotgun cloning or HIV.  And it worked.

The school I came to has a lot of molecular equipment but lacks a DNA
sequencer or reagents/equipment to do that.  I said that I would write
small grants and just completed one for a small scale DNA sequencer.  

Most schools who say they want you to develop undergrad. research
should stipulate how much start-up money you will get (anywhere from
a year for 2-3 years).  You need to ask that during the interview
that is what will hold you while you get established, while you perhaps
get money for equipment and so forth.

I am obviously just starting and so I have also made the decision NOT to
take any students my first year and not even to get the lab started
maybe spring.  I have put in a small grant for field research and will
things going come summer.  

I asked a LOT of tough questions of the dept. during my interview
regarding the weight of research in tenure decisions.  I think that is
something you HAVE to do.  


Undergraduate students are incorporated into faculty research.  Projects
are not artificially made just for an undergrad to be doing something.
Thus, they are not different in concept from graduate research but of
course undergraduate students have to have more supervision and
and the project is smaller and more certain to yield exciting results in
shorter time frame.


	I saw your posting asking for information about
student research projects, costs, etc.  Of course I do
not know your experience, but thought I would share 
some thoughts on this topic with you.  I am assuming that
you are either a soon to be finished PhD or a postdoc.  Please
ignore this advise if this assumption does not apply.
	I have known several post-docs who have in the past
applied for work, and had similar problems with obtaining
work.  Meaning that they felt they had a lack of experience with 
several aspects of teaching.  I'll ask you the same question
I have asked some of them:  Is teaching something that you
automatically do with some of your time?  Have you volunteered
to give guest lectures about your research to courses in 
your field?  Have you attended any teaching workshops?  Do
you tutor?  Are there undergraduates doing research projects
at UMass right now?  If so, could you volunteer to be a 
mentor of some sort.  You could help walk them through their
experiments, read drafts of their research proposals, help
them when they get stuck during data analysis, and with preparation
of their senior thesis.  It seems to me that this sort of 
teaching experience is likely to be available to you right
	This takes time, surely.  And it may detract from time
for your reseach, of course.  But, if you are to get hired 
as an Assistant Professor you will be expected to balance your
teaching, supervising student research, grant writing, and 
supervising research in your lab, and other items, all with
very limited time.  
	As far as examples of projects I have had the following
student projects in the last two years:
	Examination of the inhibition of light stimulated
pulvini movement in Mimosa pudica by calcium ion channel
	An attempt to select chlorine resistance in E. coli.
	Isolation of protoplasts from the mesophyll of 
geranium petals and demonstration of their viability.
	De-etiolation of dark green bean seedlings with 
exposure to light;  Quantification of chlorophyll synthesis.

	These projects have been all over the map.  In part 
because the greenhouse we have has suffered from neglect
causing us to lose all our plants last winter (the college
does not have funds to maintain it).  Also, the budget for 
senior thesis work is about $600 total.  So I have had to 
guide our students to fairly simple projects.  Ideally, I 
would like to have students join me on one of my research
projects and I have several loose threads ready for them to 
pick up.  I have also found several research articles with
examples of experiments that our students could attempt
with the equipment we have here.  The goal is for the student
to produce a manuscript in the format of a research journal,
and to either submit it or to present it to the college
community.  They generally take a year and a half to complete
this process.  


An interesting problem.

I cannot, cannot, cannot imagine how anyone could ever conceive that 
mentoring undergraduate research is like grad research-- the 
differences are overwhelming.  I'll outline these and then get to the 

My background: I started mentoring undergrads while I did my 
dissertation work.  I now teach at an u-grad only branch of a major 
university, and have one of the most active research programs on the 
campus.  Much but not all of the work gets published; most gets 
presented at regional meetings.  I have been at this for 8 years.  I 
have a repuatation as one of the best faculty here, and involving 
undergrads in research has contributed significantly to that 
reputation.  My work is in plant conservation genetics: much of the 
work is lab work with molecular techniques, from isozymes to PCR and 
sequencing, but there is also field work, greenhouse work, etc.

Question 1:

1. Undergrads know nothing.  Even if they have had chemistry & 
biology courses, you still have to teach them how to use the pH 
meter, how to make up a buffer or any other solution that has more 
than one component, adjusted to the proper molarity, pH, etc.  You 
have to show them how to keep a research-grade notebook.  You have to 
teach them how to plan work: identify assumptions, devise appropriate 
tests, include positive and negative controls, etc.-- and I'm not 
talking about just the overall design of a research project, but even 
the day-to-day work of troubleshooting why reactions fail, how to 
make them work best, etc.  They have no experience at planning work 
so that it is efficient: structuring their work to minimize busywork, 
redundancy, etc.

2. Undergrads have no time.  An undergraduate may have about 10 hours 
per week to work on a project.  Their life is full of other events, 
such as courses, jobs, social stuff, etc.  I'm sure you know from 
personal experience that a grad student has nothing to do but work on 
research; no job, sleep, or life outside of that.  While there's some 
facetiousness here, the quantitative difference in how much time is 
available for research makes a very real difference: a grad student 
has much more time for the work, so more gets done.

3. Undergrads disappear.  They usually come to you & your project in 
their junior year (or even senior); by the time they have learned how 
to do what needs to be done, they are walking through the graduation 
ceremony.  So not only do they have fewer hours per week for 
research, they have far fewer weeks devoted to their project.

4. There is a tremendous synergy between points 1-3: With 
undergrads, you spend a tremendous amount of time in the educational 
part.  Grad students have more time per week, more weeks of time, and 
get much more done on their own during that time.

5. The institutional context makes a difference!  Suppose a grad 
student runs into a problem; who will s/he go to for help?  Probably 
to another grad student, maybe to a staff scientist, maybe to a 
post-doc in the lab or down the hall.  And, to sharpen the point, 
there probably is someone down the hall or at least on campus who can 
help: they have the reagents to test why some reaction doesn't work, 
or the piece of equipment needed, or the familiarity with the 
statistical or software package needed, etc.  In an undergrad 
setting, when the student stumbles into a problem, they have only one 
person to go to- you, their faculty advisor-- and your lab may be the 
only one on the campus, or in the city, or even within a couple 
hundred miles, where there is similar work going on: when it comes 
time to trouble-shoot some process, neither your student nor you can 
simply go down the hall and try it with someone else's materials.  
Also, most u-grad places either do not have a radioisotope licence, 
or, if they do, you will be the person who has to do all the 
paperwork (etc.) to keep it viable, with little institutional 

6. Funding.  The world of funding for graduate-level research is a 
whole different ball game than for undergraduate work.  Even when you 
find money for materials and expenses, there still is the problem of 
finding money for time: for stipends, etc.  There is very little 
available, and it will continually tax your ingenuity and 
grant-writing efforts to come up with the money to buy the next batch 
of an enzyme, let alone a piece of equipment, or find salary money so 
that your student can do research and earn money rather than work at 
a convenience store to pay rent and buy food.

All of this, Ellen, means that actually accomplishing 
publication-quality research with undergrads is a far more difficult 
task than most people can imagine (especially if your research 
involves field work, the vagaries of living organisms, & expensive 
technology).  It will eat up your life.

Question 2:

A not quite up-to-date list of our equipment is available on the 
UMM website ( if you click on programs and go to 
biology-- there is a BioGuide handbook for majors there, with a list 
of equipment at the end.  Our best scopes are Zeiss Standards, 
suitable for some research but not for any of the most current stuff: 
certainly none of the $20K and up type scopes, and no decent 
photomicrograph capability.  No EM (neither the money to buy nor to 
maintain).  We have three greenhouses, one good growth chamber, two 
old clunkers.  When I got here the pest problems (etc.) were so bad 
very few plants could grow in the greenhouses; we now have an 
effective IPM program and grow dozens of species.

Question 3:

My graduate advisor told me not to get into this, several times.  I 
did not take him seriously.  I do not know if he meant it seriously 
or not.  I would not advise my children to go into academia.

At the beginning, I said that I would later discuss the similarities 
between graduate and undergrad research, but I think they are 
trivial.  Yes, grad students need some help devising appropriate 
projects, learning how to write grant proposals and research reports, 
etc.-- but everything I saw in 8 years of grad work indicated that 
most (not all) of this education actually comes from other grad 
students, post-docs, and technicians, rather than from the grad 
student's advisor (that's part of why I emphasized the importance of 
context above).

What it all boils down to is this: only go into undergraduate 
teaching, and undergraduate research, if you really believe in it for 
some deeply personal, beautiful,  irrational reason.  I mean that 
entirely literally and with no romance at all, because if those 
conditions are not met it is not the right field for you, you will 
not be happy, and students will not benefit from your efforts.  The 
frustrations will just not be worth the trouble.


I'll preface my remarks be saying I am a ********** U, a comprehensive
PUI with about 12K students.  I have a USDA funded research program with
3-5 undergrads most of the time and we study arabidopsis
genes and enzymes.  I'm up for tenure this year and have been told I
shouldn't worry.

>The Fall is here and I am working on my statement of research interests
>for another year of academic job applications.  I had a bit of success
>last year-- two interviews--

That is a very good sign...

> but I want to improve the quantity and
>quality.  One problem I have is that I have no experience with
>undergraduate research.

Did you ever have an undergrad working with you as a postdoc?  That is a
common type of experience I have seen in job applicants.  If not, get

>  I have been told by contacts at these
>institutions that undergraduate research is just like graduate research,
>but this does not seem entirely true to me.

If you suggest that it is different to them, you might be shooting
in the foot.  We work more slowly, but the work done can be
the same.  Some folks without resources may have undergrads work on
"projects" that may never be publishable, but that is not the way it has

>  So if you could...
>1. Tell me about the research  projects that you have going with
>undergraduates.  I am particularly interested in the areas of cell
>biology, plant physiology, and plant molecular biology.

My web pages (see below) describe my program but not in detail.  I'll be
updating the soon.

>2. What equipment do you have and not have, and so how do you plan
>projects around what you have?  Do most have greenhouse space and
>research grade microscopes?

We are well equipped for molecular work and even have a Licor DNA
sequencer!  What I lack is colleagues with similar expertise to bounce
ideas off of.

>3.  Any general advice that you wish someone would have told you when
>you started out?

Have you heard of the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR)?  They
recently moved to DC and are changing their website completely (I'm on
committee) but you can learn about it at:  If
can get to their next meeting in LA (during the ASPP meeting :-(, you
learn a lot about how to do UG research quickly.  I have been fairly
successful and am having a lot of fun so I recommend it!

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