Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Lina's Blueprint for Action

The purpose of my Sociology 1130 project was to amass both quantitative and qualitative data about student research in the life sciences as well as faculty experiences with mentorship of these undergraduate researchers. The data collection methods I used for this project included both interviews and surveys. My research objectives were three-fold. 

Aim 1: Identify structures of support and advising that currently exist for student researchers in the life sciences outside of their lab network

I reached out to representatives at the Science Education Office and the Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Office and was fortunate enough to receive written reflections from one individual whose identity shall not be revealed due to confidentiality clauses. I gathered that the Life Sciences advising team through the Science Education Office, based in the BioLabs, is the primary advisory body for student research, and, more specifically, there is one individual responsible for all undergraduate science research advising. Looking on their website (, I was actually quite impressed to see that it was quite populated with resources that I was unaware existed before. From a landing site with links all life sciences affiliated centers and departments at Harvard to open research positions and transportation options, the website does a pretty thorough job in terms of covering all possible sorts of questions students may have regarding the lab selection and placement process. I was surprised to see that a Student Handbook already exists and addresses the many pressing issues that student researchers face in the lab ( 

I am pretty sure not many students nor many faculty are aware that this Handbook exists, or if they are, it does not seem like many individuals actively use or reference it. If lack of awareness is the issue, perhaps it would be helpful to create a resource guide to make already existing supports for student researchers more accessible and easy to navigate. If lack of consultation is the issue, it is important to think about why students or faculty do not find the way information is presented in the Handbook appealing, whether people are weary of one-size-fits-all advice, or whether navigating a handbook is what student researchers need when they are emotionally rundown by their research related challenges. It seems that many students also do not seek out much support through the official advising avenues according to the survey.  There was a relatively even split between the number of students who indicated that they consult their direct mentors, personal support networks including family and friends, other lab members, or advisors when they need support, but nobody responded the Science Education Office or URAF. 

Aim 2: Investigate alignment of student and faculty opinions on motivations and benefits of term-time life sciences research and determine the best practices and greatest challenges for student researchers and their life sciences faculty mentors

Time commitment: It seems that there is not much variation in the number of hours students are expected to go into lab and how much they actually go into lab.

Motivations and Benefits: Most PIs alluded to the fact that there were a diversity of reasons undergraduate students want to join labs and that all motivations should be supported if they were rooted in genuine desire to engage in a research experience. For example, even though, premedical students may be "checking a box", it is unfair to assume that they are entirely uninterested in the subject matter. Generally, both students and faculty identified scientific thinking, mentoring relationships, lab teamwork, mastering techniques, and communicating effectively has a few of the most important takeaways from research experiences. PIs mentioned the notion of testing out careers significantly more than students did when asked about the benefits of student research and heavily emphasized the opportunities for students to publish their work, which was a point of disappointment for the student respondents of the survey who said that papers they were supposed to be authors on never ended up getting published while they were in the lab. 

Challenges:  Both students and PIs agree that time management and school-lab balance is the biggest challenge for student researchers to deal with. PIs did not mention any other challenges they believed undergraduate students faced other than long commutes, which is directly related with time commitment. Students,  on the other hand, identified how much the following stressors impacted them on a scale from one to five, with five being very stressful. Qualitative responses also demonstrated the slow progress in the lab, low amounts of PI interaction, uncertainty/lack of structure, and "lab rat" treatment of students were also predominant concerns

Expectations: PIs expect students to thoroughly prepare for interviews by doing background research and providing the PI with information about what they want to get out of their lab experience and why they chose the specific lab they are interviewing at. Since there is no standard set of questions that is circulated amongst all the PIs, some will neglect to set clear expectations at the onset of a placement, which can undermine a student's research experience. If a student is expecting a significant amount of interaction with their PI, they are better off choosing a smaller lab or voicing directly to the PI during their first meeting that they would appreciate regularly scheduled meeting with their faculty mentor.  Both PIs and students voiced that summer is the optimal time to begin research in a lab, as term-time is much too hectic. Another differing viewpoint is the student desire to have opportunities to "shop" labs to get a better feel of lab culture as well as their mentor's expectations and teaching style. Only one PI mentioned that they allowed students to freely explore the lab on their first day and choose any mentor they wanted for a trial period. Additionally, only one PI mentioned that she connected a new undergraduate to another undergraduate student in the lab to facilitate candid conversation between the newcomer and the experienced student researcher. The wish that students had reached out to other former or present students in their labs prior to joining is a regret that many respondents expressed. Many PIs did express that students were free to leave when they wanted to, but the student survey indicated that some individuals felt as if they could not switch out of a bad lab after having been a part of it for a long time already. An expectation that seems to be well understood between PIs and students is regarding failure and the fact that PIs are (generally) not upset in their students if their experiments fail. 

Aim 3: Assess what information exchange is needed to facilitate healthy and productive faculty-student relationships in life sciences labs and brainstorm new initiatives to support students through their research experiences


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