At UC Davis, undergraduate students can conduct hypothesis-driven research under the direction of a faculty member. College of Biological Sciences faculty are exploring many topics across a range of disciplines in the life sciences, from untangling the complexity of the plant circadian clock, to investigating the microbiomes that make up our guts.
“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.”
Undergraduate student researchers use the scientific method to help perform tests, conduct experiments and collect data, typically under the guidance of a graduate student or postdoctoral researcher. As a College of Biological Sciences student, you'll be an active part of the scientific community on campus, but 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 actually conducting real research is very different than reading about it in 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 common 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:
Laboratories where organisms, chemicals, drugs or other biological samples are tested. Wet labs make 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.
In a dry lab, researchers 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.”
This type of research is ideal if getting outdoors 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.
For pre-med students, clinical research will allow you to study and evaluate preventative measures, diagnoses and treatments for patients. This might be a valuable option if you are interested in healthcare.
Outside of academia, internships can 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."