Saturday, November 21, 2009

Selecting undergraduates to mentor

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to take in a couple of undergrads and have them work directly under me in the lab. Regular readers of this blog might be able to guess my reason for doing so. It is not altrusic intent on my part, although I must state that this arrangement will be a win-win situation for all of us involved (if the research results and their lab performance turn out well). They will get the research experience along with strong recommendation letters for grad school and a small stipend, and I will get some help in my experimental work and substantially more to write about in my Teaching Statement. I am fortunate the advisor is agreeable and supportive of my decision, and sees this as a necessary step for my professional development as a future faculty.

That said, I set a relatively high bar for my applicants. I did not want any average Joe or Jane - I used the GPA (imperfect as it may be) as the first cut-off, basically restricting myself to the top 20% or so of the cohort. This group is also the one which is most likely to get admitted to the top-ranked departments. Then, to sieve out those who weren't serious about working or putting on their thinking caps in the lab, my applicants had to submit and complete a written exercise along with a resume listing the relevant coursework taken and grades obtained. Finally, they had to pass my interview. I focused on their academic ability, motivation, and commitment to put in time and effort in their work. I want them to succeed, and their success will reflect my success as a mentor.

A fellow postdoc friend in the neighboring lab thought I was crazy to set so many conditions. He operates on more of an open-door policy - basically allowing any interested undergraduates (GPA > 3.0) to volunteer in his lab for a few weeks and then offering those who do a good job the option to get research credits or for a lucky few - to become paid undergraduate research assistants. "You won't get anyone!" he howled, but I got the students who met my criteria within a week of putting out the advertisement. Too many in fact, and I had to reject some excellent candidates. I felt weird to be sitting on the other side - deciding on who gets into the group or not.

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Many moons ago, I worked in an organic chemistry group in my undergraduate institution for 3 semesters. The postdoc I worked under was a hard driver. I remember spending my first few months in the lab just washing glassware, and this was a few years before Philip Yeo's now infamous comment that people with basic science degrees would qualify only as test-tube washers in A*star. I progressed from just doing the washing to doing the grunt work in mixing reactant solutions, preparing suspensions, purifying and separating intermediates using a rotovap and packed silica columns, and analysing the samples using TLC and 1H NMR. In return for my (hard) work, I got an A for the research credits that counted towards my major GPA, strong recommendations for grad school and a stint in another university for a summer of more research work.

Part of my labor went into a Science paper that the postdoc published with the professor a year after I graduated. There were just the 2 of them in the list of authors. My name did not even appear in the 'Acknowledgement' section, although to be fair I did not make any intellectual contribution to the publication. I was just a 'lab tech' following the postdoc's instructions.

Sometimes I look back and wonder - I was this close in getting my name to a Science paper as an undergraduate.

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Note: To those of you who have never heard of Nature or Science, Jorge Cham does a good job illustrating scientists' obsession with having at least one paper published in either one: I, II, III.

3 comments:

Tom Bailey said...

Even though you might not see mentoring as altrustic... it still might be.

I like your blog.

I stumbled across your blog and I am glad that I did.

Best regards,
Tom Bailey

SM said...

In my undergrad days, I was supervised by a laissez faire PhD student who couldn't have cared less about my future. I like your approach better :)

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