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Fresh perspective

Alan Berkowitz was taken aback when a colleague told him that undergraduate research is an oxymoron. Berkowitz, head of education at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, had reason to be surprised. Since 1988, he has been running an undergraduate research programme at Cary, and he recruits up to a dozen students a year for the institute's 12-week summer session. He says that undergraduates are much more than cheap labour and can contribute to further insight. In training them, he says, he has seen his own scientific thinking sharpen.

Had Tracy Johnson not gained research experience as an undergraduate, she says, she probably would not have done a science PhD. “As with many students who love science, I'd only considered medical school,” says Johnson, now a molecular biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The experience changed her career trajectory. “When I was in the lab, it was like the world opened up. I understood what the process was. I learned you could create new knowledge. If you had the right intellectual tools, you could ask and answer questions.” Her adviser helped her to realize that she could contribute to science, even at this early point in her career. “It was a wonderful experience because he was a terrific mentor, and he created a research environment that was rigorous but fun,” she says. “The postdocs and graduate students in that lab seemed to have fun working together and doing great science. That experience set the bar for what I wanted my own research lab to be like.”

“This is an essential skill set that you cannot sit in a classroom and learn.”

Whereas the benefits of undergraduate research for the student might seem obvious, some — like Berkowitz's colleague — wonder why a principal investigator (PI) would ever want to staff their lab with inexperienced people who have busy coursework schedules that make it hard to attend regular meetings or get into a work rhythm. Rotating undergraduates into and out of a lab every summer or semester means that PIs must find projects that do not require a long-term commitment. And, of course, undergraduates will have a steep learning curve just to master the basic language of the lab, let alone its protocols and techniques.

Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Nature 518, 127–128, copyright (2015).

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