What Does Undergraduate Research Look Like?

Lab beaker and test tubes

Understanding the types of undergraduate research

When we talk about undergraduate research, we are referring to hypothesis-driven research conducted under the direction of a faculty member.

Our faculty members focus on many research topics across the life sciences, from untangling the complexity of the plant circadian clock to investigating the microbiomes that make up our guts. And you have an opportunity to be part of the science. 

“Research experience helped me debunk many of my preconceived notions of what scientific research is truly like,” said Ben Mallory, ’18 B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “The biggest benefit for me was finding that my true passion was research, with my undergraduate research experience converting me from a pre-med direction to a Ph.D. route.”

Ben Mallory
Ben Mallory's research in the lab of Distinguished Professor Wolf Dietrich-Heyer focused on a DNA repair technique called homologous recombination, which uses information from healthy DNA to repair broken DNA. David Slipher/UC Davis

As a student researcher, you’ll use the scientific method to help perform tests, conduct experiments and collect data, typically under the guidance of a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher.

While you’ll have the potential to be a part of science, keep in mind that it usually takes a long time to make research advances and breakthroughs. The process requires patience and commitment, as well as follow-through.

“Students love reading about concepts and discoveries in their courses, but real research is much different than a textbook," said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. "Labwork can be repetitive, and it takes tenacity when it comes to verifying findings and making new discoveries.” 

The most commons settings for undergraduate research

Not all research looks the same, but there are three primary types of environments you’ll work in as a student researcher:

Wet Labs are laboratories where organisms, chemicals, drugs or other biological samples are tested. This makes up the majority of on-campus labs in the College of Biological Sciences. In addition to our college, many other faculty have wet labs across UC Davis.

Kelsey Klein
In the lab, Kelsey Klein studied relationships between attention mechanisms in the brain’s early visual cortex and eye gaze, using methods such as eye tracking and electroencephalography (EEG). David Slipher/UC Davis

Dry Labs rely on computational or mathematical analysis, as well as sophisticated electronic testing equipment. These labs may also perform experiments on human subjects, evaluating brain, muscle or heartrate data.

“In my lab, we look at the neural mechanism of attention, so we’re looking at how people pay attention in space and what pathways in the brain allow that to happen,” said Kelsey Klein, '18 B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior. “I’ve been lucky enough to be able to be on the side of helping design the experiment with my faculty mentor to actually collecting the data from people and learning how to do the analysis part.”  

Fieldwork may be ideal if getting outdoors is more your style, or if you think you might enjoy collecting data outside a lab environment. While the methods and approaches of fieldwork vary, the goal is the same. You’ll observe, count and quantify the natural world. In the College of Biological Sciences, the Department of Evolution and Ecology is your best bet for finding fieldwork opportunities.

Wild Davis course
Professor Phil Ward (front left, kneeling) and Ella Brydon (front right, kneeling) use a pooter to collect native ant species in the Arboretum while Professor Sharon Strauss, Isabelle Gilchrist and Xinyu Gao (back, left to right) look on. The collected ants will be contributed to the citizen science program School of Ants. Laci Gerhart-Barley

Other types of research

Clinical research studies and evaluates preventative measures, diagnoses and treatments for patients. This might be a valuable option if you are interested in healthcare.

Internships outside of academia can also help you get other kinds of professional experience, especially if you want to learn first-hand how a business or organization operates.

Choosing a research environment

Now that you know a bit more about what to expect as an undergraduate researcher, it’s time to build a list of topics that you are interested in. With hundreds of research faculty across campus, you’ll have plenty of options and opportunities to pursue. Take some time and create an inventory of your skills and passions. By doing that, you’ll gain a better understanding of how to find your ideal research experience.

“I would suggest reading recent papers and reading the principal investigator’s (PI’s) bio on the UC Davis faculty page,” said Bita Shahrvini, ’18 B.S. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. I chose the lab I did because I liked the PI, the lab offered me the chance to work and learn directly from the PI, I was able to have my own projects from the start and because I was intrigued by the research topics."

Visit our Faculty Directory to view a list of researchers offering undergraduate research opportunities in the College of Biological Sciences.

Be sure to read our next post, How do I find my research passion?

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