Introduction to Independent Research
The Biochemistry & Molecular Biology Department places a high priority on hands-on science education, offering BMB majors the opportunity to work in cutting edge laboratories. BMB majors can earn academic credits and gain important real-life experience working with a research team that is led by a professor and includes other undergraduates, postdoctoral fellows, research technicians and graduate students.
Independent Research allows students to become involved in a wide range of research projects in federally funded University labs. Students are encouraged to consult with BMB Chief Undergraduate Advisor Dr. Amy Springer or BMB Advisor Valerie Miller to discuss decisions about research opportunities. The credits for Independent Study (Research) that BMB majors earn for working in a research lab can count toward the required 8 credits of advanced electives.
What are the benefits of doing independent research?
Independent research is an important experience for BMB majors who plan to pursue a career as a professional scientist, including students who go on to medical, dental, pharmacy, law, business or graduate school or who want a career in the rapidly expanding field of biotechnology. Working in a research lab fosters a strong commitment to the research project, promotes problem solving skills and analytical thinking, and teaches real team work. The director of each research lab, the Principal Investigator (PI), is a professor who writes the grant proposals to obtain funding to support the lab, supervises the research, and supervises the writing of research manuscripts for publication. The lab members may include postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) who are recent PhD graduates, PhD or MS graduate students, other undergraduate students, and technicians. All work closely together on a particular research problem with each member pursuing an agreed-upon, but independent, role in the project. BMB students benefit greatly from the daily access to faculty mentors, graduate students, and other scientific professionals working in the research community. Not only will independent research further your scientific knowledge and experience, it could help you decide on a career and provide valuable letters of recommendation.
Who is eligible to do independent research?
BMB majors who have a GPA of 3.0 or higher are eligible to participate in independent research. It is very important that the student’s schedule can accommodate the additional time required without adversely affecting the student’s coursework or GPA. BMB majors should meet with their advisor or the CUGA to discuss their research plans.
Most BMB majors start research in labs in their junior (third) year. However, there are many first and 2nd year majors who, because their schedules allow it, start earlier. There are also students who do research only in their last year. It is very important that students learn how to balance their BMB coursework with the demanding time commitment of lab research. BMB majors are advised to make coursework the priority for the first 2 years since these courses provide the foundation required to become a successful research scientist. BMB majors who are interested in pursuing the 5th year MS in BMB must start by the first semester of their junior year and must be in a BMB Department lab.
As upperclassmen, BMB Honors majors continue in their chosen lab, but follow the requirements of the Commonwealth Honors College Capstone Experience.
Research labs are open year round and BMB majors may be allowed to work in the lab during the summer for academic credit. If you are interested, check with the lab PI.
Where can students do independent research?
The BMB department doesn’t have enough faculty to accommodate all of the talented BMB majors who want to do research. As a result, BMB majors are permitted to do Independent Research in labs outside of the BMB department, including other UMass departments, the Five Colleges, and biotech companies.
BMB CHC students are strongly encouraged to do their Departmental Honors Thesis work in BMB labs, if possible (Biochem 499Y and 499T). However, in the case where an Honors student pursues work in a lab outside BMB, he/she must get approval from one of the BMB Honors Program Directors and have a BMB faculty member serving on the thesis committee. The Honors Program Director has to sign their approval of the Honors Research Contract and accompanying preliminary proposal before enrollment in Biochem 499Y/T. See the CHC webpage describing the requirements for the individually contracted Honors Thesis proposal.
Find a Lab for Independent Research - Step by Step!
BEFORE you contact a faculty member (PI) about working in a lab:
If you are sure you can commit to a research lab, decide what type of research interests you. There are many faculty members on campus who are conducting research that requires the use of biochemistry and molecular biology. A good place to start is with the four interdepartmental graduate programs on campus, which include faculty working in the College of Natural Sciences, the Stockbridge School of Agriculture, and the other 5-Colleges (Smith, Amherst, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire).
Search the web sites describing research of possible interest to you:
- BMB Department
- Molecular and Cellular Biology Program faculty
- Plant Biology Program faculty
- Neuroscience and Behavior Program faculty
- Organismic and Evolutionary Biology Program faculty
Talk to students already working on research in the lab of interest.
Watch for announcements of CNS and Biochemistry Club panel discussions on “How to Get Into a Research Lab”.
Identify several faculty with whom you may want to work.
Contact individual faculty members by email.
- At the very least, include your major, class year, needs, experience, career goals and interests, and express why you are interested in their lab. Consider providing a resume.
- Request an appointment to discuss a possible research project.
- Allow adequate time for the faculty to respond. If necessary, send a friendly follow up email to the PI. Be persistent, but not aggressive.
Arrange to meet with each PI, and be prepared!
- Learn the basic information about the PI’s research, and the approaches underway to solve the problem that the research team is working on.
- Prepare questions to ask the PI about the research and specifically inquire about projects available for undergraduate independent research.
- Think about how much time you have available to work in the lab each semester, and take into account your other time commitments when you consider the number of academic credits you want to earn each semester. Students earn one credit for every three hours per week spent in the lab.
Once you and the PI have reached an agreement, obtain the appropriate form.
- BMB majors complete the Independent Study Form online. You will be registered for Independent Study course Biochem 196, 296, 396, or 496 depending on your class year.
- BMB Honors students complete an Honors Independent Research form through CHC PATHS.
After all of the forms have been successfully submitted and processed, you will be an official member of the lab! Learn how to make the most out of your undergraduate lab experience.