Tips on Finding, Joining and Thriving in a Research Lab!

With the COVID-19 pandemic, my ability to participate in lab work, which I had imagined would be a key part of my university experience, was quite limited. While my remote research experiences taught me many interesting skills, such as using computational tools like Gaussian and PyMol, I was eager to start lab work in-person once restrictions allowed for undergraduate research. With my previous remote internship during the Leach Summer Scholars Program, I continued working with the Knowles lab with my summer mentor on a new project. I wanted to share the lessons I’ve been learning after my first few months in the lab which I hope will be helpful and relevant for you!

The chemistry labs are all housed in the beautiful Frick Chemistry building!

Look at the lab’s community

While being interested in your lab’s research is definitely a priority, one aspect about joining a lab that I feel might often get overlooked is the type of community created in the lab and the mentorship style you are looking for. While all of Princeton’s labs have incredibly interesting projects, groups can vary greatly in the kind of mentorship styles available for undergraduate students and work environments. For example, are you a type of learner who would benefit from having your principal investigator (PI) check in with you regularly, or do you prefer self-directing most of your work? Will you thrive in a bigger lab with more people and projects available, or do you like having a smaller, more tight-knit group? 

These are only a few of the questions I asked myself before joining the group, and many of the answers on how a lab is run can be answered by reaching out to other undergraduates that have already joined the lab (especially seniors who have likely spent a lot of time in lab already!) as well as graduate students (including your preceptors and TAs!). Another great way to experience whether you would fit in well with the group is letting the professor know that you would be interested in potentially joining their lab if space is available and asking to sit in on a few group meetings, where lab members will come together to discuss progress on their projects or have literature review meetings! If you have questions about how you should approach professors, have a read of Bridget’s post on Getting Involved with Lab-Based Research at Princeton.

My first time performing an HPLC – learning new techniques can sometimes be intimidating but are always fun!

Set a schedule 

Once you join a lab and are paired with a mentor, discuss your planned schedule of when and for how long you plan on coming into the lab with your mentor. Some professors and mentors may have expectations for how often they want you to come in to work with them on projects, so clearly communicating with them on this right from the start will help you to find times that work for both of you. Coming in on a regular basis at set times will help you make steady progress on your lab work and will also allow your mentor to expect your arrival so that they can also plan for when they will do their own work and be able to set aside time to teach and supervise you. While spending lots of time in the lab can certainly be a meaningful and rewarding experience, make sure to also keep time carved out for yourself and other extracurricular activities that you enjoy being a part of!

Keep a lab notebook

Lab notebooks can come in many different shapes, sizes and formats (our lab uses electronic notebooks!) and keeping notes on your project in one central place will help you keep track of your progress and will also facilitate your job later on when you’re trying to write a paper such as your JP or senior thesis, likely weeks or months after you’ve conducted the experiment! In addition to writing down the reactions that I am performing in the fume hood in my electronic notebook, I also keep a paper notebook with me where I write down procedures or techniques that my mentor teaches me so that I am able to perform them independently later on. Your notebook is also a wonderful place for you to write down questions to ask your mentor as well as new potential directions for a project that you might discover as you’re conducting your work.

Get to know your lab mates

One of the best parts about being in the lab in-person is the ability to have (spontaneous) social interactions with the other members of your lab, including other undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs! Getting to know the people who work near you will certainly make the research experience especially enjoyable and gives you a group of people to whom you can ask questions and who might give you new ideas or methods to try when a part of your project doesn’t seem to be working out, since research is certainly a collaborative effort! Graduate students and postdocs in your lab are also wonderful resources if you are thinking about applying to graduate school, careers in academia, or other opportunities post-graduation.

Ask questions – but to yourself first!

If you’re joining a lab for the first time, definitely do not be afraid to ask your mentor questions about different procedures to make sure you feel comfortable conducting your project. At the same time, I think that one of the ways that I have learned the most out of my experience is to use my critical thinking skills and to ask myself whether I might know the answers to my own questions first and then confirming them with my mentor. This has helped me develop many problem-solving techniques that I’ve been able to apply to my research and classwork. My mentor is also incredible in that he phrases most of the things he’ll say to me as questions, for example by asking me why I use certain chemicals in a reaction, or why I should mix them in a specific order. While thinking through these questions can sometimes be tough, it helps you avoid blindly following a pre-written procedure and makes you think about why you are doing what you are doing, which is an important step in being able to create your own procedures later on. This also helps you gain a better understanding of the science that is going on behind your work so that you are able to truly appreciate each step of the process you are carrying out. Joining a lab is a wonderful way to apply lessons from lecture to practice in a hands-on way, and being thoughtful about your work is a big first step in maximizing your learning!

I hope that these guidelines were helpful for those of you who are starting, or thinking about starting lab work in-person. Princeton is a special place in that we all have the opportunity to be involved in the leading edge of research, so make sure to take advantage of the experiences that may come your way!

— Cecilia H. Kim, Natural Sciences Correspondent