Tiffany Woynaroski, PhD, studies speech development in children with autism.  She also mentors 14 undergrads as part of her research team.

The undergrads on Tiffany’s team are an integral part of her lab and involved in all aspects of her research.

Over dinner, she told me why she loves working with undergrads and how she manages such a large team.

10 Essential Takeaways for Managing Undergraduate Research Assistants:

  1. Prioritize undergrads planning to attend graduate or medical school.
  2. Hire sophomores who are available for a few years.
  3. Pair new hires with experienced seniors to train in the lab.
  4. Learn each student’s interests and long-term objectives – tailor research training to these goals.
  5. Clarify expectations and responsibilities by having lab guidelines and student contracts.
  6. Optimize communication by distributing all team members’ contact information.
  7. Focus on keeping productivity high and continuously track tasks.
  8. Use a project management tool like Basecamp – it’s free for academics.
  9. Apply for undergraduate summer research awards to provide intensive paid lab experiences.
  10. Involve undergrads in all aspects of research, from study design to presentation of results.

Keep reading for a deep dive into working with undergrads.

Wait, how many undergrads do you have?

At the moment I have 14, as well as one undergraduate student who is presently en route here from another institution for a summer training experience! I had seven undergrads in my lab at the beginning of this academic year, but they were all seniors. I started preparing for their departure by hiring seven more undergrads. I paired each sophomore or junior with a senior so they could learn the ropes from a pro.

 

Where do you find your undergrads?

My undergraduates have come from a variety of programs. Many are Neuroscience majors, who are required to rotate in a laboratory/laboratories as a part of their program. I am also mentoring undergrads from a variety of other programs, including Psychology, Child Studies, Child Development, and Medicine, Health, and Society.

Some students work in the lab for formal research and/or course credit, some to complete independent studies, and some to carry out thesis projects.  Others have simply joined the lab on a volunteer basis for research experience and professional development.

Most of my students have sought out placements in the lab, so I have not had to work too hard to “find them.” I receive regular inquiries about laboratory positions from undergraduates, in particular from neuroscience students. Because the demand is so high, I am selective.  I prefer to take on students who are sophomores so I have several years to mentor them. I almost exclusively accept students who are planning to pursue graduate or medical school because they are more invested in, and more likely to apply what they learn from, the research experience.

Do you pay your undergrads?

All of my students have started working in the lab on either a volunteer basis or unpaid for formal course credit. When students have completed “basic training” and exhausted their formal research credit, I often offer them paid positions.

A number of seasoned undergraduates work part-time in the lab during the academic year and full-time as paid research assistants over the summer break.

One of my former undergraduate research assistants is currently working as a full-time RA prior to attending medical school.  Other students have already inquired about moving into gap year positions.  It’s a lovely model because former research assistants are already so well-versed in the mission and operations of the lab. They are able to transition almost seamlessly into paid positions that offer a full-time placement and more intensive experience in the lab.  This is particularly helpful for the students who are unsure if they want to pursue an academic research versus clinical career.

What sort of tasks do undergrads perform?

It varies. It’s worthwhile to take time on the front end to learn about each student’s interests and long-term objectives. I try to tailor their research training/experience to their interests as much as possible.  All students complete standard training, for example in conducting human subjects research and in understanding issues relevant to working with families and children affected by neurodevelopmental disorders. Students are then assigned to observe more senior undergraduates in the lab so they get a broad sense of the range of biobehavioral approaches that are utilized in our research and the clinical populations that are involved across ongoing projects.

Over the course of the first semester, students generally identify what research project or method is of greatest interest to them, and their training subsequently focuses on that area.  The specific tasks that students complete thereafter are then quite diverse in nature.

Undergraduates have collectively been involved in all aspects of the research endeavor, from research design and task development/piloting to recruitment; from data collection, coding, entry, and analysis to dissemination of results in the peer-reviewed literature and at scientific meetings, as well as to the broader group of stakeholders and general public.

What problems arise with your lab team and how have you and handled them?

Fortunately, issues specific to undergraduate mentees have been fairly infrequent and easy to manage; this is surprising given the size of the team. The challenges are general HR problems such as last-minute call-offs/no-shows or failure to complete tasks in a timely manner, etc.  These difficulties are influenced by student-specific issues, such as balancing lab time with obligations relevant to other coursework or extracurricular activities and training/travel schedules for my student athletes.

I have learned to clarify expectations up front. All students now read and sign a Lab Guidelines document that delineates the lab mission, organizational structure (from PI, to research coordinators and graduate students, to senior undergraduate research assistants, to junior undergraduate research assistants), and specific student responsibilities.

To address communication breakdowns among team members, each semester I distribute contact information for all lab members and use the Basecamp app to communication with the group or selected individuals.

How do you keep track of so many people?

My lab grew so quickly that at one point it felt like I was herding cats! Now I use a project management tool called Basecamp. When a colleague suggested using this, I was quite hesitant about it. I thought it was another program to clog up my phone/desktop and eat up all my time.

Basecamp has changed the way I run my lab. Productivity, organization, and communication have gone way up. My favorite features for managing a large team of undergrads are:

  • Automatic check-ins to ping undergraduate research assistants daily with a prompt that asks, “Were you in the lab today?  If so, what did you work on?” This prompt links to a REDCap survey where I can easily track their hours.
  • To-do list feature to keep track of specific items to be completed in the lab.
  • Teams to easily target communication to specific groups of individuals on an as-needed basis.
  • Campfire tool for lab- or project-wide instant messaging. This is helpful to quickly survey everyone to determine who can jump in to assist with data collection that is derailing, or who knows where certain equipment/materials might be, etc.
  • Formal message boards and schedules to send reminders, share important information, and keep everyone apprised of upcoming events.
  • Files to keep electronic records of lab minutes, student schedules, and lab protocols.
  • Individual tasks to track due dates and status.

In case you can’t tell, I have now completely bought in to this whole Basecamp idea! As an added bonus, it is free for folks who work in academic settings.

What have your undergrads accomplished?

The students who have rotated in my lab have been very successful. Most of them have earned authorship on presentations at scientific meetings and/or publications for their contributions to the lab.

Many undergrads have secured awards to cover intensive training experiences in the laboratory. For example, Vanderbilt students have received Vanderbilt Undergraduate Summer Research Awards that allow them to remain in the laboratory full-time for the summer.  Undergraduate students from other universities, such as Oberlin and Mount Holyoke, have secured similar awards via their institutions to complete intensive training experiences in the lab.

Several undergraduate mentees have developed proposals and secured funding for their own research via internal mechanisms, such as VICTR, or external mechanisms, such as the Autism Science Foundation.

I’m really quite proud of my undergrads and their many accomplishments!

Do you have any advice for working with undergrads?

I encourage others to work with undergraduates!  The undergrads at Vanderbilt and peer schools are of the highest caliber.  They are not only bright and reliable students, but are also incredibly competent and self-motivated young scientists.

Undergrads bring loads of energy and enthusiasm—and lots of new questions and hypotheses—to the laboratory.  Having them in the lab has not only allowed me to invest in their personal and professional development, but has also undoubtedly furthered my own research agenda.

Working with undergraduates is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job and a key to the success of my laboratory to date.

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