James and the Giant Corn Genetics: Studying the Source Code of Nature

November 30, 2010

Recruiting an Undergrad

Filed under: Uncategorized — James @ 5:08 pm

If you are an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley interested in gaining research experience or know someone who is, check out our lab entry at the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program (URAP). The project description is a huge mouthful, and personally I think it sounds much more intimidating than it needs to be. So below is my argument why, if you’re interested in a research career or graduate school, you should consider in working in my lab, even if you aren’t specifically interested in genome evolution or computational biology.

The biggest single skill you need to develop (before or during grad school) is how to — for lack of a better term — think like a scientist: develop hypotheses, devise effective and efficient experiments to test them, and interpret the results of those experiments. Learning to these skills takes practice. If you join a molecular biology lab, one mistaken idea or poorly conceived set of experiments could easily eat up months of your time.  The kind of research we do means the time to test an idea can often be measured in hours or days instead of months or years. That means more loops through the cycle of developing ideas, designing experiments, carrying them out, considering the data you’ve generated, and developing new ideas, which in turn means you’ll get more practice thinking like a scientist over the same length of time. As an added bonus, we’re also likely to give you more freedom to pursue any cool ideas you think up in the course of your research, since even if they turn out to be wrong you won’t be wasting all that much time (or any expensive reagents).

As far as knowing how to program goes, you really won’t need to.

  • If you don’t the kind of projects you’ll need to spend hours in front of a computer clicking through lots and lots of gene comparisons. Here’s an example of what I mean from my old NSF fellowship proposal and the post that explains what it’s all about. It’s at least as exciting as setting up PCR reactions, there’s no risk of the disappointment of running out your reaction to find you’ve just produced another blank gel and you’re going to find cool things that a computer wouldn’t know to look for, which is why I still spent a lot of time doing this stuff myself.
  • If you know a little about programming, you’ll get to use whatever you know a lot, and probably gain a lot of confidence in your skills (what happened to me when I joined the lab).
  • If you’re double majoring in computer science, you certainly know a lot more on the subject than I do, and you’re not likely to find challenges that will even come close to testing your abilities, but there will certainly by an even wider range of possible projects open to you.

At least one recent undergrad in the lab ended up with a first author paper from his time here.

Disclaimer: Obviously the final decision of who and how many undergraduates are accepted is up to my PI not me.

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