Undergrads in the Lab: An Interview with Paris Grey
Molecular biologist Paris Grey knows a thing or two about issues undergraduate students face in research. Not only is she the Coordinator of Research Programs in the Department of Biology at University of Florida, Grey also co-authored Getting In: The Insider’s Guide to Finding the Perfect Undergraduate Research Experience, and co-created Undergrad in the Lab, a site devoted to helping undergrads get the most of their research experiences.
We love this book so much it hurts. Grey graciously shared some more information about her and Dr. David Oppenheimer’s projects, as well as some advice for students and mentors:
What prompted the creation of Undergrad in the Lab and Getting In? Why did you and Dr. Oppenheimer choose to focus on undergrads vs. grad students?
We created Undergrad in the Lab and wrote Getting In to empower undergrads to choose a research position that is right for them, evaluate the experience to get the most out of it, and gain self-advocacy skills along the way.
We’re keenly aware of the impact an undergrad research experience can make personally, professionally, and academically. After all, we each started our research careers as undergrads. My first lab experience was a dishwashing position, and my co-creator Dr. David Oppenheimer joined a phage lab as a researcher in his junior year.
But we also know that research experiences are not universal. And that undergrads typically don’t have as many resources as graduate students do help them evaluate what they could get out of a research experience. This is especially true for students who have not had the advantages of early exposure to STEM hobbies or opportunities, or consistent encouragement from a teacher or mentor to pursue a science-based career.
Originally, we planned to write one book, but as our research and interviews continued we ended up outlining four independent manuscripts on life in the lab. Getting In is the first to be wrapped up. The second book, which is substantially longer, is a guide for navigating a research experience after joining a lab, and building healthy, professional relationship with labmates. Only about 10% of the advice in this second book is exclusive to an undergrad experience.
What do you find undergrads in STEM majors struggle with most?
Most STEM majors have academic advisers to help choose the classes they need for their major and projected career path. But, when it comes to their college experience outside the classroom, I’ve known numerous undergrads to struggle with balancing their social time, academics, and meaningful extracurricular activities.
In most cases, it’s not a problem with self-discipline as much as not yet having developed an arsenal of time-management strategies. Time-Management is basically distraction management, and it’s harder to do than anyone expects. Because there are so many interesting things to do in college, that feeling of FOMO can quickly lead to overcommitment, followed by a frenzied game of catch up mid-semester.
Making the tough choice of which activities to prioritize is one of the most challenging lessons for STEM majors.
What piece of advice do you wish your undergrad self had received from an advisor or mentor?
Be willing to learn anything that anyone is willing to teach you. You aren’t expected to know everything, and you can’t learn everything on your own. By adopting the philosophy “what more can I learn from this job/experience/situation,” you’ll demonstrate that you are open to learning and are investing in yourself. A mentor will then invest back in your success.
I know you have lots of great tips for undergrads (and grad students), but what do you believe is the most important piece of advice for PIs and mentors?
The first few weeks are critical for building trust in a mentoring relationship. Meaning your student needs to learn right away that they can trust you. Many researchers (undergrad, grad, and postdoc) have shared stories with us about how the mentoring relationship between them and a PI never got off the ground because the lab’s culture focused on highlighting failures instead of being a model for solving problems.
Your researchers need to know that when they make a mistake, if they struggle with a technique, or if they don’t yet have the scientific knowledge that their peers do, that you will do you best to guide them through it and you will do it without judging them. I use the phrase, “There is nothing here that you cannot get better at doing,” when I’m helping a new researcher navigate a challenge or if they are struggling to digest the primary literature. It acknowledges that there is a need for improvement, but it opens conversation of what specific strategies they can use to move forward.
Fun question: I never leave Gainesville without eating at Metro Diner. What restaurant in Gainesville do you believe visitors should try before leaving town?
Cilantro Tacos. Whenever I can, I catch their food truck on Thursday night in the Tipples parking lot. I usually order the burrito with extra cheese or the cheese quesadilla. The cheese is very important.
More information about Undergrad in the Lab: