The following article shares highlights and insights from one of our Expert Series events, which are exclusive for Young Scholars and their parents.
Being involved in scientific research at a young age can be a transformative experience. Many young students are first exposed to science by reading textbooks or popular-science books. While such books can provide a wonderful introduction to a field, students may become excited by particular topics that are not covered in sufficient depth by books.
A significant next step for a young student is to execute scientific research in a lab. This is a formative transition for a student, pivoting from the receipt of new knowledge (through classes or books) to posing their own scientific questions and experimentally answering them with their own two hands (in the research lab). Working in a scientific research lab can be electrifying: students can propose and test their own ideas, preview what a career in scientific research is like, and even realize that science is much more complex and ambiguous than is usually portrayed in classes and books.
There is no single path to join a research lab: everybody will have their own path. The first step is to look up potential research labs that might interest a student. To that end, students can look up the website of a nearby university, and navigate to the website of a department that interests them (e.g., the Genetics Department). Within that department, students can look through the online profiles of professors and see whose research might be a good fit for them. For professors that they are particularly interested in, students should take the time to carefully read about their research, by searching the Internet, reading the professor’s lab website, and (ideally) trying to read scientific papers published by that professor.
Students can then email professors they are interested in working with. Emails should not be “generic” but rather should be tailored to each individual professor, explaining why the student finds their specific research program interesting. It is important for young students to try to build credibility in their emails: for instance, that they’ve taken the time to try to read the professor’s papers and so forth. Students should keep in mind that few professors might respond (for instance, if one emails ten professors, perhaps only one or two might reply positively). Once accepted into a research lab, students will often be paired with a day-to-day mentor (e.g., a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow) who will mentor them.
Tips for Reaching Out Professors and Beyond
Tip 1: Before emailing a professor, dedicate effort to understand their research as best as you can. This includes scouring their lab website, reading more about their general research topic on the Internet, and even reading their published scientific papers (if possible). This is important to establish a student’s credibility, and will go a long way in making a good first impression (via email) and helping to convince a professor that you are serious and really excited about working in their lab.
Tip 2: If you email a professor and don’t hear back, do not be discouraged! They have busy schedules. If you do not hear back, it is perfectly fine to email them again in 1-2 weeks. Also, you may write to multiple professors and may only hear back from one or two at the end.
Once you’ve found a scientific topic (e.g., bird flu) or a professor whose research is of interest, you can use general online resources (Google or Wikipedia) to learn more about that topic. However, students should be cognizant that not everything on the Internet is accurate or covered in-depth. Ideally, a professor’s lab website (if they have one) can provide a more curated source of information about their research topic. Students can also go “the extra mile” and look up their published scientific papers. For certain disciplines, a complete list of published papers by a given individual can be found at PubMed (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/), a search engine maintained by the US government.