Undergraduate Research

photograph of graduate student in a labWhy Undergraduate Research?

The faculty of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry view undergraduate research as so important to the bachelor's degree, no matter what your career plans, that we have made research a mandatory part of every emphasis area in the department. Majors normally fulfill this requirement by scheduling at least one semester of CHE 496 [(html version without attachments) (pdf version with attachments)] with a department faculty research advisor. This course now requires CHE 410, chemical safety, as a prerequisite.

This research requirement serves as the departmental capstone course. As such, there is a university requirement for at least 5000 words in writing assignments, which is primarily in the final report, and two oral presentations. Students should make as many presentations as possible, including in front of their research group, at the semester-end undergraduate symposium, at meetings of scientific organizations such as the Mississippi Academy of Sciences or the American Chemical Society, etc.

The longer a student works in a research lab, the more they accomplish and the more likely they will have the opportunity to make a presentation at a scientific meeting or become an author of a scientific publication. You do not have to receive course credit to work in a research lab. Many faculty pay undergraduate student researchers, which is certainly preferable to working at a fast food restaurant and better for your career.

Majors from other departments or chemistry majors wanting to take research hours before their senior year should take CHE 392 (html version) (pdf version). This allows the student to get credit for research experience without the requirements of the capstone course.

Students perform research project under the mentorship of one of the department faculty. To select a research advisor, students should review the research interests of the faculty members in the department and pick two or three to speak to about ongoing research projects in their lab. This should be done by the second or third year.

Off Campus Summer Research Opportunities

Sophomores and juniors are encouraged to do research at another university during the summer. You should check out the NSF REU site as well as opportunities at national laboratories like Oak Ridge. Also see this very comprehensive Guide to Undergraduate Research. For students interested in a career in medicine, summer opportunities may be found at the Association of American Medical Colleges.

In addition, students interested in a career in the chemical industry are encouraged to work as an intern for a company or research institute during the summer. Although this is normally just for pay and experience, such an internship can qualify for CHE 494 credit if a) they are working on a project in chemistry or biochemistry, b) they have a department faculty advisor who approves their project, and c) they write a formal report on their project. You must arrange this ahead of time with the department chair.

Clarification of Expectations

Below are a list of questions that should be addressed in discussions between student and faculty research advisor. Communication is critical because of the unstructured nature of research. You as the student should make sure at the start of the semester that you are clear about the following points.

  1. Will you be paid for the research and, if so, at what hourly rate? Have you filled out the necessary student employment paperwork in the department office?
  2. If you are getting research credit hours, how many hours a week are you expected to work and what will your schedule be?
  3. Will there be regular laboratory group meetings and when will they be?
  4. Who will be your direct day-to-day supervisor? This is often a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher, since the faculty adviser does not usually work in the laboratory.
  5. Will you need a key to the lab? Please do not work alone in the lab at night or on weekends.
  6. What are you expected to accomplish over the course of the semester? How will you be graded? (See Research Grading Guidelines)
  7. It is expected that you will turn in a draft of your final report before the end of the semester for your faculty adviser's critique. When will this draft be due? When will the final report be due?
  8. What particular safety issues will arise with this project? What do you do about safety glasses, lab coat, notebook, etc.
  9. Will you be presenting your work at the departmental undergraduate symposium or a scientific meeting such as the Mississippi Academy of Sciences?

Preparation

It is important that you familiarize yourself with the project before beginning work. This means that you not only discuss the project at length with your mentor, but that you also do a thorough literature review of the proposed project and exhibit an understanding the literature you have unearthed. In preparation for laboratory work, you are strongly encouraged to read the safety handbook titled Safety in Academic Chemistry Laboratories. The department also requires all majors to take CHE 410, Chemical Safety, before embarking on their research project.

You must be prepared when you come into the laboratory. This means you know what experiment is to be performed and exactly how to do it. Do not expect your mentor or another student to do the project for you. You should also be familiar with the possible hazards involved in the experiment and take adequate precautions to minimize these.

Laboratory Performance

You must work an adequate number of hours in the laboratory each week to complete the proposed work (minimum 10 hours/week). Research takes a great deal of hard work and an hour here and there will not suffice for an independent research project. Both your project and your grade will suffer as a result of too few hours in the laboratory.

As far as actual laboratory work is concerned, you must exhibit good safety technique at all times, e.g. wear protective clothing and safety glasses in the laboratory. Laboratory accidents are usually the result of sloppiness and carelessness. This also means that you must exhibit good laboratory cleanliness, e.g., clean up after yourself, turn off instruments when not in use, etc.

You are strongly encouraged to be creative in the laboratory, e.g. think about any new ideas for experiments, solving existing problems or suggesting alternative interpretations to data. This is what separates scientists from technicians. In addition, you should always use good experimental technique, e.g. think through an experiment beforehand, pipette carefully, use the appropriate controls and blanks, etc.

Notebook

You must record each experiment you do, including all calculations, in a readable format in your bound notebook. Scribbling is done on the left hand side while a permanent record is kept on the right hand page. Each experiment should start with a title, date, notation of any reference you are following and a brief introduction to the experiment. This is followed by your experimental procedure, observations and analysis of product or result. Each experiment is recorded on a separate page. The notebook remains property of the principal investigator when you leave.

The Final Report

It is very important that you turn in a well written typed final report before the last day of classes. The report should be of the same format as a standard biochemical journal, e.g., Journal of Biological Chemistry. To ensure a good review of the report you are must submit a draft of your report to your mentor for evaluation at least a week before the final finished report is submitted. Other helpful reading is a book by Robert Day titled How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper. Below are some general guidelines for the final report.

Title Page:
Title of Project
Name of Person Submitting
Name of Mentor and Department
Semester Project Was Performed
Date Final Report Submitted

Abstract: State the principal objectives, describe the methods used, summarize the results and state the conclusions. This should be no more than half a page.

Introduction: Demonstrate that you are familiar with the literature pertaining to your project and place your project in the context of that literature.

Experimental: The details of your experimental procedures are described in sufficient detail that someone else can repeat them.

Results: This is where the results of your experiment are displayed, e.g. graphs, tables, etc. This is also where any calculations you used are presented, usually in the form of sample calculations. Again, this should not contain any more words than are necessary to describe your experimental results. Graphs and tables should contain an appropriate title and should be easily read (well labeled). Raw data is not normally presented in the report, with one exception: The data used to construct a graph should be tabulated in an appendix attached to the report.

Discussion: In this section you should discuss, not simply repeat, the experimental results. If possible, compare your data with known values and results from the literature. This is also the section to explain any problems or "surprises" encountered during the project. If you can think of better or alternative ways to do the experiments, please tell us in this section.

References: Literature cited in the report should be listed here. References should be complete, i.e. should contain authors, title, volume, pages, and year of the referenced work. This section should contain AT LEAST 10 primary references.

Senior Honors Thesis Requirements

Other tips

  • Find the most current papers possible on a subject. Look through the journals in the Recent Acquisitions department of the library as well as the databases such as Index Medicus and Chemical Abstracts.  Remember when searching databases by hand or computer, the choice of key words is all important. Consult the librarian andyour faculty sponsor.
  • Use figures, diagrams and models to illustrate your points.
  • Be professional. Don't make personal comments in the text.
  • Type in an easily read font. Presentation makes a great deal of difference.