Practical research experience is a key part of the Neuroscience major, and most students choose to fulfill this part of their curriculum by participating in a project within a research laboratory under the guidance of a faculty mentor. Undergraduate research, combined with a senior thesis, paper or a research presentation, can also be used to complete the Capstone experience required for a bachelor's degree from the College of Arts and Sciences.
Occasionally labs will have paid research/ lab work opportunities available, but the majority of projects are done for academic credit. Students work approximately three hours per week for one academic credit hour, and receive grades every semester. This is a great way to get graded credit for work outside of the classroom that is also relevant to your undergraduate education. The Neuroscience major will accept research credits through independent research course numbers within other academic departments, such as Biology or Psychology. Starting in the Spring of 2010, Neuroscience will have its own undergraduate research and undergraduate capstone course designation numbers.
Course professors, academic advisors, friends, and departmental notices posted on bulletin boards are all good resources for finding potential research projects. However, you should also browse faculty research descriptions within departments that house Neuroscience faculty on various University websites. You will then contact several potential mentor who work in an area that you're interested in. Your own initiative is crucial in starting this process. Below is a step-by step guide that will help you find the right research project for you.
- Get a grip on your schedule
Before starting out on a research project, you need to know that you have the required amount of time. Make sure you have the time do well academically, since bad grades can hurt you both during and after college. Once your academic schedule is set, decide how much time per week you can devote to a project. You should also have an idea as to which academic semester you can work, and if you would be interested in working during the summer. It is not unusual for faculty to ask for eight to ten hours of lab work per week, and many mentors prefer students who can stay on for more than one semester.
- Put together a resume and list of interests
You should be able to show potential research mentors a brief, concise list of your experience and accomplishments, and a resume, or Curriculum Vitae (CV), is the best way to do this. Don't spend a lot of time polishing each point, and do not worry if you don't have a lot to put in your CV (that's what you're here for!). Faculty are less interested in a long resume, and more interested in seeing that you are organized enough to track and evaluate your academic, work and life experience.
You should then compose, on paper or in your own mind, a short list of the academic and work- related topics that you are interested in pursuing. Are you interested in health care and neurology? Human psychology? Cell level physiology? Genetics? Zoology and animal behavior? Some departments do basic research aimed at answering fundamental questions in biology, while others have a more applied focus to discover causes and, potentially, cures for human disease. Research in neuroscience can encompass these and other broad approaches. Having some focus to the type of research experience you are looking for will help you narrow your list of choices, and you will be able to effectively explain to faculty why you might be interested in working in their lab. You may even decide to do a project in a lab that does not work on neuroscience per se, but is overall more in tune with your interests. Such projects are perfectly acceptable for credit within the undergraduate neuroscience program.
- Find faculty work that you're interested in
It's never too early to start browsing faculty research descriptions as listed on UC's departmental or program websites. Start looking through the links listed on the Neuroscience Faculty page. Take the time to look at all the different websites listed, and surf around departmental websites. Do not worry if you don't understand some of the information in faculty research descriptions—you're not evaluating the details, but rather trying to understand the big picture. The more time you surf, the better idea you will have of the type of research each department performs. You will likely find that your original interests will change as you see the wide scope of research available at UC.
- Contact potential faculty mentors
Once you have found several professors with research programs that are interesting to you, you should contact these faculty members by email and ask directly if they would be interested in having an undergraduate student do a research project for academic credit. Keep the letter short (several sentences, or a short paragraph). Introduce yourself with your name, major, academic year, and state that you are interested in a research project for academic credit. Briefly explain why you are interested in the faculty member's lab, and how your background or career interests might make you suited to work on a research project in that field. Mention what semester(s) you want to work, and how much time per week you would be available. Offer to send a CV and references upon request.
You never know beforehand whether a lab has an opening for a student, so it is always to your benefit to ask. Often, an opportunity will only arise if you actively contact the faculty. In this way, you not only show initiative, but you can actually create an opportunity. Professors are used to (and often welcome) inquiries from students. Don't hesitate: a little bit of background work on your part will land you a great research project that will greatly enhance your overall education and college experience, and will help you when you go on the job market or apply to postgraduate training programs. If you are having trouble navigating faculty webpages or finding a good mentor, please talk to your Neuroscience or other undergraduate advisor.