Connecting Professors with Students in Undergraduate Research: One Student’s View from the Freshman Year

March 3, 2009 at 11:55 AM

Jim asked Ashley Pira, a freshman behavioral neuroscience major at Northeastern who has managed to get into a laboratory, to write a piece on how students and professors connect and to do it from a student view. You will find that below and I (Jim) think it reveals an important element in how this process works that is not always clear enough to us professors. We want to continue to bring you these insights along with the more academic discussions of the theory behind experiential education as in last week’s blog.

– Shwen and Jim

Connecting Professors with Students in Undergraduate Research:
One Student’s View from the Freshman Year

Professors and students are the faces of academia. They work together to pose questions, find answers, and create knowledge and passion for learning – both inside and outside of the classroom. However, in order to be productive, these professional relationships require certain dynamics and equilibrium. From a student’s perspective, many overwhelming questions linger – what can I do to get involved? How can I manage my time? What work takes priority? What do I want to do with my academic career? What do I ultimately want to do with my life? Often students look to professors, not for direct answers, but for guidance, inspiration, or just practical expertise.

My personal experience with this collaboration process began at the beginning of my freshman year as a behavioral neuroscience major at a cooperative education university. I took a one-credit class as an introduction to my major and every class, one or two professors presented his or her research in the neuroscience field. I was very intrigued by a professor who presented about his functional MRI laboratory, so I approached him after his presentation about a volunteer position as a freshman. Many thought this to be an unwise move – even my advisor believed that freshmen should focus solely on work and get involved in extra curricular during sophomore year. But, I found the lab and the research too interesting to pass up, and I figured that volunteering would eventually help me compete for a research co-op job, and possibly a position in medical school some day.

Both professors and students have expectations of one another. Many students hope for a mentor; they want someone to foster a smoother transition from old experiences to new ones. Take this example of undergraduate student-professor research; undergraduate students are encouraged by universities to get involved with laboratory research. But is encouragement really enough for students, compared to having an actual mentor? The trend appears to be that most students need the outreach because they are simply inexperienced in several respects – inexperienced with lab work, the project process, general knowledge about complex topics, and the list goes on. I was nervous approaching the professor after his presentation. At the time, I knew what a neuron was and that was about it (talk about inexperience!). The professor put forth opportunity, but students, like myself, wonder – am I qualified to take advantage of this? Lack of proper experience to get over the hump is a major drawback for students in getting involved in research. Though the student should take the initiative, the professor must be understanding of the “inexperience” reservation going on in the student’s minds.

The common view of this situation is that both parties must tiptoe around the ideas of acceptance, commitment, and experiential education. My message goes out to both students and professors alike. Professors must be open-minded, willing to take on a team of undergraduates, and be eager to learn from the students. Students must not be afraid of taking advantage of opportunities, even if they seem intimidating. The worst that could happen would be nothing. Literally.

Ashley Pira ‘13

“Life is really beautiful… and you can appreciate its richness, its depth, its extraordinary loveliness only when you revolt against everything… so that you as a human being can find out for yourself what is true, not to imitate, but to discover – that is education, is it not?” –Jiddu Krishnamurti, author of Individual and Society.

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3 Responses to “Connecting Professors with Students in Undergraduate Research: One Student’s View from the Freshman Year”

  1. Mercedes says:

    Hi Ashley,
    I complete agree with your view on this delicate equilibrium between students and professors. It is often hard, even after you have experience, to approach professors regarding volunteer research opportunities. Professors are sometimes viewed as residing in the top of an “ivory tower” and the students are lost below somewhere. Professors can certainly be intimidating with the various degrees following their name representing the years of schooling and experience.
    Finally, I completely agree with the insecurities students have when approaching professors about research. I know I feel “fake” and that the professors will only think I want this for my resume. I assume the only way to really circumvent this problem is to address it head on and explain your intentions to the professor. Your last paragraph assures me that students will not stop trying to do research with professors because you are right, what is there to lose? Absolutely nothing.

  2. Vanessa says:

    I think this was a great post! I too have experienced something like this during my time at Northeastern. For me, the inclusion of extra-curricular activities has significantly helped my time management skills and kept me on track, so to speak. I too approached a professor during my third year of college, timid and shy as ever. I had a lot of free time and decided to pursue some research. It was the single best move of my undergraduate career.

    I think the main point that needs to be addressed is the lack of knowledge about such opportunities, or that such moves are not only permissible but encouraged. As a senior looking back on my college career, I realize how much I know today that I was completely unaware of a mere five years ago. A delicate dance must occur between students’ enthusiasm and motivation and the willingness of professors’ to seek out and establish student relationships. I know many students who don’t know half the opportunities that are available to them. It can be argued that the students who will benefit from such experiences will ultimately seek out these experiences, but that is not always the case and it should be an assumption.

    I think the best way to encourage the experiences that you and I have had would be to do just this: talk about it, let it be known. Sharing knowledge is always key, and I feel that in this case it is the best method to encourage the professor-student mentorship.

  3. Kathryn says:

    Ashley- I agree. Undergraduate research or really any undergraduate work experience is invaluable in finding your true career path. Too many people are afraid of their own inexperience and do not take the first step to get into labs/jobs. I know that my undergraduate career was largely shaped by the 3 years I spent in an undergraduate neuroscience laboratoy– the things I learned in the lab have stayed with me much longer than things I learned in the classroom.

    Mentoring is so key to a student’s success. If more professors would reach out to be mentors for the students, a large school such as NU would seem much more welcoming–a place where professors want the students to thrive. I know that I was unhappy at NU until I found my mentor. It is definitely a two-way road, however. Students need to show that they care enough so the mentor(s) feel as though they are spending their time wisely.

    Good for you for realizing all of this as a freshman! Best of luck with your research and career goals.

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