Once you have identified your research passions and the research setting you’d like to work in, it’s time to take the next step and introduce yourself to faculty researchers.
Approaching faculty can be a daunting prospect, but our faculty members are here to help you succeed in the life sciences. They want eager and curiosity-driven undergraduates in their labs, but it’s up to you to take the initiative and establish a connection.
The best way to initiate communication is by writing an email or even approaching a faculty member in-person during their office hours.
But before you do that, be sure you’ve done your homework. You’ll have much better luck receiving a response from faculty if you know what’s happening in their labs. Sending generic mass emails in hopes of getting a response isn’t likely to work.
“When I was looking for a lab, I spent several hours going through various professors’ websites and reading about their research,” said Benjamin Mallory, ’18 B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “I then picked four or five that seemed interesting to me and emailed the professors.”
The work paid off for Mallory. According to Distinguished Professor Wolf-Dietrich Heyer, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, it was Mallory’s evident familiarity with the work at the Heyer Lab that convinced him to offer the student an undergraduate research position.
“The research itself can vary quite a bit, from running gels and conducting western blots to injecting worms and microscopy,” said Mallory. “Have an open mind and an adventurous spirit, and you will have a great experience in whichever lab you choose.”
Making the most of campus resources
Brandon Nava Ultreras, a biological sciences and Chicana/Chicano studies double major, used his adventurous spirit to find research opportunities on campus. Through a mentorship program with the UC Davis AB540 and Undocumented Student Center, he secured a position in the lab of Assistant Professor Rebecca Calisi Rodríguez. There, he worked with Calisi Rodríguez’s study subjects—pigeons—to investigate prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production. Though Ultreras had never worked with pigeons before, he eventually became the lab’s aviary manager.
“I’ve had students contact me with no experience or references, but when I bring them in for an interview, they’re passionate and my gut says go with them,” said Calisi Rodríguez. “My gut hasn’t been wrong yet.”
UC Davis has many programs and resources that help connect students to researchers on campus, like the Undergraduate Research Center, Accelerating Success by Providing Intensive Research Experience (ASPIRE) and Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CUREs).
College Medalist Kelsey Klein was a member of the ASPIRE program, which connected her to Professor Ron Mangun, Department of Psychology and Neurology. In the lab, Klein studied relationships between attention mechanisms in the brain’s early visual cortex and eye gaze.
Most undergraduates get their first research role with minimal previous scientific experience. Faculty know you’re here to learn and it’s got to start somewhere. So as long as you have curiosity and drive, you’ll find a place to grow as a scientist at UC Davis.
“I think students need to kind of trust themselves a little bit more and be a little bit more confident,” said Jennifer Addleman, who joined Professor David Hawkins’ Human Performance Lab as a freshman.
Addleman studies the physiology of movement and explores how this understanding can help reduce ACL injuries. “You don’t need to go into it already knowing everything, because that’s not the point. The point is to learn more,” she said.
Preparing your credentials
Before you apply to a lab, you’ll want to make sure your resume is in tip-top condition. Faculty know that for many students college marks the first opportunity to engage in scientific research. So including your work and academic background is important. Many of the skills essential to your previous jobs, like time management, attention to detail and ability to handle responsibilities will be essential to success in a research environment.
“You should have a resume prepared that not only covers your academic performance and background, but your work history, volunteerism and maybe a little bit about your motivation,” said College of Biological Sciences Dean Mark Winey.
And if you’re a first-year or transfer student, the BIS 005 and BIS 198 introductory courses provide opportunities to help you draft letters of interest to a lab and create a professional online presence via LinkedIn.
So whether you’ve got prior research experience or are just setting out on your scientific career, following these steps will help you make an impression. Taking the initiative to learn about faculty labs and preparing a resume will demonstrate your capabilities and commitment to finding a research position.