Students in Service and Leadership at Harvard

Lina's Story of Us

Undergraduate student research in the life sciences is often a polarizing experience. A large cohort of life sciences student researchers are on the premedical track since research is one of the “checkboxes” on the checklist for medical school applications, other examples of requirements being community service, excellent academic standing, etc. Thus, students seeking out labs often do so with ulterior intentions of using research opportunities as a means to and end rather than an end in itself; for example, students may enter labs to satisfy the research requirements for medical school and get into good graduate programs with glowing letters of recommendation from their mentors and PIs rather than being genuinely interested in the science they are engaging in. Another possible issue contributing to negative college research experiences involves the power dynamics along with the lack of transparency of expectations and evaluation methods of mentorship in the lab setting along with significant time commitment that is required for bench science experiments. Student researchers might be confronted with the notion that they are considered “free labor” in the lab and that they have no bearing or voice in the story the lab is conveying to the rest of the scientific world. This perception, if beheld, would make it difficult for students to endure challenges in the lab, as they navigate learning curves, negative results, and disappointment from their mentors and PIs, who also have to juggle the conflict between their professional goals of advancing their research and more personal desires to cultivate the next generation of researchers. The hierarchical separation between students and their mentors often thwart open communication between the two entities, with students, whose priorities are their academics, taking the brunt of unrealistic expectations and timelines.

The goal of my project for the Sociology 1130 course is to identify the best practices and hurdles of undergraduate student researchers in the life sciences, ask how universities can create more supportive structures for students to navigate relationships with and communicate feedback to their mentors and professors, and propose changes to the system that will aid future student researchers in choosing lab experiences that are most tailored to their own expectations and desires. 

In order to accomplish these goals, I sent out a survey over all the Harvard House lists to collect demographic and experiential information from student researchers in life sciences labs. I have chosen to highlight some of my findings below. 


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