Building Community into the Undergrad Research Experience
University of Pittsburgh’s latest HHMI grant will help improve how science is taught and will be used to expand students’ opportunities for mentorship and peer-to-peer support.
The standard model for undergraduate research has a lot going for it, says Graham Hatfull, chair of the biology department at the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt). Students spend a summer or two doing a research project, often get drawn in by the experience of first-hand discovery, and sometimes go on to graduate or medical school. “It’s all positive,” he says. But there is room for improvement at many institutions, he adds: “The concern that we have is that it lacks community."
With support from HHMI, Hatfull and his colleagues have been working to bring that crucial element into undergraduate research. Rather than placing students in labs and leaving them alone for the summer, the program is structured so students can continually learn from one another. A portion of the university’s latest HHMI grant—which will also help improve how science is taught—will be used to expand students’ opportunities for mentorship and peer-to-peer support.
Students start the summer with a two-week workshop, where they learn basic techniques in molecular biology. Then they split off to work in the research labs where they’ll spend the summer. They have formal and informal opportunities to discuss their research with peers and get valuable feedback. In pairs, they go to regular mentoring sessions, where they talk about issues such as how to help someone learn a technique or how to resolve conflicts. Hatfull says it is part of developing successful members of the research community. "I think that with the opportunity to do a cutting-edge research project comes the responsibility to serve as an educator,” he says, adding that becoming an educator often starts with becoming a mentor.
The fabric of community created in Pitt’s summer program will now stretch into the academic year, where students will work under the mentorship of a postdoctoral researcher in a new facility dedicated to undergraduate research. The teams of students will work toward a common research goal—aligned with the research interests of the mentoring postdoc. The approach enables students to bring their interests and skills to an interdisciplinary setting, where they are encouraged to share ideas and solve problems together. Students benefit, and the postdoc gains experience teaching undergraduates and running a research team.