How to make undergraduate research worthwhile
Practices might differ from country to country, but undergraduate students can be better served in research, says Shaun Khoo.
One of the things that excited me about taking up a Canadian postdoctoral position was that, for the first time, I would get a chance to work with and mentor enthusiastic undergraduate researchers. I looked forward to the chance to gain mentorship skills while helping out future scientists, and maybe, eventually, freeing up some of my own time.
As an Australian, I had never been pressured to volunteer in a lab — most Australian students don’t do any undergraduate research unless they enroll in an extra honours year, because the law prohibits unpaid student placements that are not a course requirement. This hasn’t held back overall research productivity in Australia, but it is a stark contrast to the North American environment, where many undergraduates feel pressure to get research experience as soon as they begin university. Most graduate medical students, for example, have previous research experience, and North American graduate schools have come to expect this from applicants. In Canada, nearly 90% of graduate medical students have past research experience1.
Numerous articles extol2,3,4 the virtues of undergraduate research experience, but, unfortunately, evidence supporting the benefits of undergraduate research is limited. Most studies on the topic rely exclusively on self-reports that are corroborated less than 10% of the time by studies using more-direct measurements. For example, surveys find that undergraduate student researchers say that they have developed data-analysis skills — something that would normally involve lots of practical work — yet, when interviewed, most of them admit to never having done any data analysis.
Like many postdoctoral researchers and graduate students, I spend most of my time with undergraduate students working on technical skills that they might need to work in the lab, but that don’t necessarily improve their conceptual understanding. For example, if I teach a student how to use a cryostat, they might become proficient in slicing brains, but they won’t necessarily learn how synaptic transmission works. Even if we manage to instil excitement for the intricacies of research in our undergraduate students, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that for the vast majority that continue in academic research, there will be no permanent jobs — we might just be saddling our undergraduates with unrealistic expectations.
So how do we avoid wasting our time as mentors and our students’ time as learners and researchers? Here are my suggestions.
Consider long-term goals. Undergraduate students should reflect on how their research experiences will prepare them for professional success. Should they be aiming for research experiences that are based on their courses, because it will better improve their understanding of scientific concepts? Will a given opportunity help them to reach their career goals by getting into a professional graduate programme? Can they commit to staying with a research programme long enough to become effective and potentially be a co-author?
Acknowledge and offset opportunity cost. Undergraduate research requires significant time investments from both students and research supervisors. Undertaking such research might mean forgoing paid employment or other experiences, such as student societies, sport, performing arts or campus journalism and politics. Mentors can help undergraduate students by facilitating summer-scholarship applications or finding ways for students to get course credit for their work.
Train for diverse careers. Most undergraduate students will pursue non-research careers or join professional graduate programmes. Those who try to continue in academia will eventually face a bleak post-PhD academic job market. Just as PhD students need preparation for a wide range of careers, so do undergraduate students need to build a transferable skill set. Mentors can encourage undergraduate students to build communication skills by, for example, encouraging them to present in lab meetings, or facilitating teamwork by having groups of undergraduate students complete a project together.
Improve undergraduate research experiences. There’s limited non-anecdotal evidence that undergraduate research improves a given lab’s research productivity, or even student learning, but such research isn’t necessarily a waste of time. Before undergraduate students pad their CVs with research experience, they should reflect on what they will achieve by conducting research, and they should seek out meaningful projects to work on and develop relevant skills for their future career.
For mentors, we have an obligation to consider the career development of undergraduate students and, for the sake of our publication records, we should aim to work with students who can commit at least a year to our projects. And, as much as possible, we should try to take the pressure off undergraduate students to do research, so that it can be an enjoyable learning experience rather than a box they need to check.
This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Klowak, J., Elsharawi, R., Whyte, R., Costa, A. & Riva, J. Can. Med. Educ. J. 9, e4–e13 (2018).
Smaglik, P. Nature 518, 127–128 (2015).
Ankrum, J. Nature https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-018-05823-5 (2018).
Trant, J. Nature 560, 307 (2018).
India’s Commitment to Science Begins to Pay Off
Illustration by Michelle Thompson; Photos: Getty, Shutterstock A push to reverse its brain drain is providing the expertise to tackle its domestic problems. When Anil Koul told his friends that he would be moving to India to start working at a government research and development organization, most of the reactions were of disbelief, “even sympathy”, he says. “Some thought it was a crazy idea — moving from the world’s largest health-care giant to a governmental, bureaucratic set-up.” Koul took charge of the Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), in the northern city of Chandigarh, in 2016, relocating from Johnson & Johnson in Belgium, where he was senior director and head of the respiratory diseases group. The move to IMTECH — a branch of India’s government-run Council of Scientific and Industrial Research — was atypical. Few scientists return to India after holding top positions abroad, and fewer still move into the less-lucrative public sector. The scientific landscape that Koul has returned to is vastly different from the one he left in 1998. India is now actively participating in and, in some cases, leading advances in pharmaceuticals, agriculture and energy. The country’s efforts in space exploration are a point of particular national pride. India is preparing for its second Moon mission in 2018 after a successful maiden Mars mission in 2014, and is spreading its wings in international astronomy collaborations. The country will host the third laboratory of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project in Hingoli, while the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics in Pune is working on the design of the ‘Telescope Manager’ — the central command system of the Square Kilometer Array. These could be signs that India is enjoying ‘brain gain’ — Indian researchers are returning to their country of birth with newly minted research skills gained while abroad. This is a far cry from the state of the country’s scientific sector 40 years ago, when entire cohorts of graduates from India’s research institutes left for US institutions in search of better economic and educational opportunities. “We are now in an era of globalization and international cooperation,” says immunologist Indira Nath, a member of the Indian National Science Academy. “Scientists going abroad is no longer a big issue.” To-do list But India still faces significant challenges. It is home to one-quarter of the world’s tuberculosis (TB) cases, and continues to be ravaged by mosquito-borne infections including malaria and dengue fever. Around 700 million Indians (56% of the country’s population) have no sanitation, 240 million have no access to electricity and 97 million lack clean drinking water. Natural disasters such as droughts, floods and storms — already common across Southeast Asia — are set to increase in frequency and ferocity as the world’s climate changes. It falls on publicly funded research to take the lead in finding solutions. Since India gained independence from British rule 70 years ago, every prime minister has emphasized the role of science in the country’s development. The current incumbent, Narendra Modi, told a meeting of leading Indian science officials in July that science, technology and innovation are the keys to the progress and prosperity of India and that the government aims to apply science to solve the country’s problems. As various policy initiatives make clear, India is betting on science to address its pressing challenges in energy, environmental protection, food, water, sanitation, health care and unemployment. To achieve this, the government is hoping to find more scientists like Koul, who sees his role as an “opportunity to address bigger social as well as scientific challenges”. This is a tall order, and there’s an elephant in the room. Government funding for Indian research and development has stagnated at around 0.85% of gross domestic product for more than a decade, compared with at least 3% invested by technologically advanced nations such as Denmark, Japan and Sweden. Koul is nonetheless optimistic, and has helped to forge a collaboration between IMTECH and Johnson & Johnson, announced in August. They will work in parallel on four new molecules as potential drug targets and explore shorter, safer and more-effective oral treatment regimens for various strains of TB. Biopharma strides Koul’s collaboration is well placed to take advantage of the success of India’s pharmaceutical industry. Building on the solid foundations of the country’s expertise in academic chemistry, major pharmaceutical companies have set up factories to make affordable generic antibiotics, vaccines, and diabetes and HIV medicines. This strength is paying dividends. According to Hyderabad-based Sathguru Management Consultants, India’s pharmaceutical industry was worth US$18.8 billion in 2010 and $41.1 billion in 2017, and is expected to expand to an estimated $72.4 billion in 2022. One-fifth of the world’s generic drugs are made in India, and around half of this manufacturing is based in Hyderabad. The production of generics has certainly helped the sector, but many people hope to see the country grow beyond manufacturing. “We now need to be recognized for new drugs that address unmet medical needs,” says Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, managing director of biopharmaceutical company Biocon in Bangalore. The firm’s growing pipeline of biologics ranges from oral insulin for diabetes to monoclonal antibodies for use in cancer therapy. “There is incredible potential within India to become a powerhouse driving biopharma innovation in the Asian market,” says Vaz Narasimhan, himself a second-generation Indian American and chief executive of Novartis, a pharmaceutical company in Basel. The biopharma industry is increasingly looking for new types of talent, says Narasimhan. He gives the example of data analysts and mathematicians who he says are driving the next wave of medical innovation. Meenakshi Diwan works on a solar panel in India’s Odisha state in 2009 — then part of a burgeoning solar grid with a capacity of less than 10 MW. Now, India has a solar capacity of more than 6,000 MW.Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/PANOS Narasimhan’s confidence in Indian pharmaceutical development is significant. Most pharma companies have been reluctant to take on costly research and development to combat ‘poor-man’s diseases’ such as malaria and TB, says Soumya Swaminathan, one of India’s leading experts on TB. Swaminathan was appointed deputy director-general for programmes at the World Health Organization in October. She has led an effort to consolidate India’s fragmented TB research, previously supported by four separate institutions, under one umbrella organization — the IndiaTB Research Consortium. “These diseases are our problem,” she says. “And it is pointless expecting Western pharma companies to be interested in them.” When asked, Indian pharmaceutical companies say they are reluctant to take up research in these areas, citing a lack of government funding for early-stage research, and reams of red tape once a product reaches clinical trials. Pollution pains In April, a collaboration between researchers in Germany and Anil Dayakar, an environmental activist in India, reported that Hyderabad’s pharmaceutical manufacturing was polluting the region’s water system to an “unprecedented” degree, and hurrying the development of drug-resistant forms of bacteria (C. Lübbert et al. Infection 45, 479–491; 2017). The researchers suggested that more regulation was needed to prevent further pollution in the region. The pharmaceutical industry in India is not the only source of contamination — pollution is common to many of the country’s cities, and India’s capital, New Delhi, spends its winters wrapped in smog. Krishna Ganesh, director of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Tiruptai, hopes that science can help. “The focus in chemistry is now shifting into areas that involve green and sustainable chemistry,” he says. Research topics include non-toxic chemicals, environmentally benign solvents, organic production and renewable materials. “The main aim should be to get rid of toxic chemicals produced in industrial manufacturing,” and to prevent gases escaping into the atmosphere, he says. Nanotech hopes India’s strength in chemistry has aided its effort to become a leader in the interdisciplinary field of nanotechnology. It’s an especially tempting area of research because there’s a deep vein of funding to mine, says Kizhaeral Subramanian, a researcher in the department of nanoscience and technology at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore. “Global funding for nanotech had increased from $1 billion in 2000 to $2 trillion in 2016,” he explains. On top of that, Subramanian says that the country has a strong talent pool to draw from owing to the proliferation of nanotechnology degree programmes across the country. From a developmental perspective, the field is a sensible focus as well. As India’s population swells further, the demand for food and clean water is rising. “Nanomaterials can help in water cleansing from bacterial and metal contaminants,” says Ganesh, and nanomaterials may also be able to help with crop protection. For example, Tamil Nadu Agricultural University is researching the production of non-toxic herbicides and fertilizers, as well as emulsions and films that improve the shelf life of fruits and vegetables. Energy dark holes Of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, almost 20% still lack electricity. To help combat this, the country has launched an ambitious renewable-energy plan, broadly focused on solar and wind power. Overall, the country hopes to produce 175 gigawatts from renewable energy sources by 2022 — meeting around 20% of the country’s predicted electricity demand. According to Tata Narasinga Rao, associate director of the International Advanced Research Centre for Powder Metallurgy and New Materials in Hyderabad, India enjoys between 250 and 300 clear sunny days each year — ideal for solar technologies. The energy plan is helped by cheap land, a vast pool of talent to draw from and enthusiastic government support and infrastructure, says Rao. In a review published this year, the International Renewable Energy Agency lists India among the six countries — with Brazil, China, Germany, Japan and the United States — that accounted for most of the renewable-energy jobs in 2016. One research programme, the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and the United States, brings together the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, to accelerate the development of solar electric technologies by lowering the cost of production. As part of this venture, scientists developed a new nanotechnological solar absorption system in 2015. The prototype, Rao says, costs half as much as the non-vacuum tubes currently used in solar collectors worldwide and have enormous potential for industry. There are local quirks to take into account before any company starts cashing in on a solar goldmine. Manufacturers still haven’t worked out what to do about monkeys and rats, which relentlessly and indiscriminately chew telephone, electrical and fibre-optic cables across the subcontinent. Meanwhile, Indian researchers are using crop residues, normally burnt as waste by farmers, to develop advanced biofuel systems and products such as biogas and biomaterials. “India’s strong knowledge base in biotechnology, chemistry, engineering and process engineering can be tapped to do research in the biofuel sector,” says Ahmad Kamal, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology in Hyderabad. Calling young scientists back To achieve its grand ambitions, India needs to nurture its new-found brain gain, and is fighting to make itself as attractive as possible through the Department of Science and Technology (DST), one of India’s largest research-funding agencies. In June, for example, the DST announced endowments of $10,000 a month for researchers who choose to move to India from labs overseas. Lipi Thukral, a computational biologist at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, thinks that the Indian research sector has been unfairly stereotyped abroad. “It is a myth that Indian salaries for scientists are low. They are very good when one factors in the purchasing power of the rupee,” she says. “One can do great science here, too.” Thukral uses high-performance computers to study the movement of biological structures and to model protein folding. After a PhD in Germany, and a postdoc in the UK, she returned to India in 2012 under another DST scheme. Shalini Gupta, a chemical engineer at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, returned to India in 2009 after earning a PhD in chemical and biomolecular engineering from North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, and a postdoc from Imperial College London. Gupta’s team is working on cheap, portable medical tools to rapidly diagnose sepsis, a serious complication of many bacterial infections. For her, India makes the perfect laboratory. “We have the advantage of having ready access to patients, samples and field trials.” Meanwhile, the Indian government plans to develop 20 existing universities into ‘world class’ research institutions with an incentive of $1.54 billion of funding. Policymakers hope this will free the country’s best universities from reliance on the country’s grant commission and associated red tape, and encourage greater institutional autonomy. “There are always challenges in working in a third-world country, but India’s role in the development of next-generation technology cannot be ignored, especially in the fields of pharmaceuticals, agriculture, energy and environment,” says Gupta. “If you are situated close to a problem, you have a bigger advantage in terms of solving it.” Nature 552, S41-S43 (2017) doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07771-y
Ageism in Academic Jobs in India
Farah Ishtiaq shares her experience on how age and success are linked in acquiring faculty positions in India India has recently been portrayed as a land of abundant opportunity in academia, investing seriously in research and development to attract skilled scientists. The government has introduced several attractive funding opportunities, with the aim of bringing back scientists working abroad to establish a long-term career here, and improving the overall research infrastructure. Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (WT/DBT) fellowships, for example, have no age or nationality restrictions, relying on qualifications, research experience, career trajectory and the candidate’s determination to establish their own independent research. The WT/DBT India alliance was initiated to develop a large cohort of internationally competitive researchers and help in developing scientific excellence and leadership; a model recently adopted and launched by the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) as well. Since Africa shares a similar burden of healthcare with India, as well as many workplace challenges, Indian scientists are perceived as key collaborators in this mission. There’s a problem here though: age limits on academic positions. Prospective candidates for assistant professor posts in India are preferred by academic institutions to be younger than 35. Although funding bodies are not hiring agencies, the age limit imposed on faculty positions by academic institutions sabotages the driving principle behind these new funding opportunities — the current system is unable to absorb enough competent, experienced scientists. The dilemma for early-career researchers is serious; many fellows are facing this harsh reality and an uncertain future. Every research position has a maximum age limit in India; from a junior research fellow (JRF), with a cut off at 28 years old, to postdoctoral researchers where it is 35 (or 40 years for women). These limits put the Indian academic landscape in stark contrast with many other countries that also follow a tenure-track system. Overall, this makes India a viable option and destination only for scientists of a selected age class. And it certainly gets more complicated for women who want to pursue a career in science and raise a family, with very little allowance made for taking time out for such. I am now in my 40s, which prevents me from being offered an entry-level faculty position. I am also a recipient of a WT/DBT India Alliance fellowship. My funding allowed me to establish an independent laboratory to study the ecology and evolution of emerging infectious diseases in wild bird populations, but despite this incredible research opportunity, I feel my career clock is ticking faster than ever. Getting funding to do science is no longer a problem, but academic policies that prevent competent scientists becoming established are preventing me from succeeding. I feel redundant — surely the quality of my science should be the focus rather than my age? What I would have done differently Hopefully, this should give others like me some insight into avoiding some of the mistakes I made. First, I should have found a trustworthy mentor who could have helped me to navigate my career path. Never put all your eggs in one basket. I should have pitched my grant idea to multiple host institutions to maximise my likelihood of finding an institution that would guarantee a more permanent position by this stage. Do your homework in understanding the system and host academic institution. Even though I deferred my fellowship for a year as my daughter was too little to be left in a crèche, I realise I should have used that time to negotiate or better understand the policy or the institute’s vision for a research fellow like me. Many academic institutions have no guidelines on the role, involvement and career development of academic fellows. Many academics fail to understand the role and potential of fellows like me and often consider them just as an extended postdoc — not as a long-term prospect or potential collaborator. Hence, I did not get enough of an opportunity to teach and to mentor PhD students. Having my own PhD students would have bolstered my career at this stage, and allowed me to evolve as a mentor. Local advice & mindset I’ve received various pieces of advice for improving my faculty application and to enhance my chances of a secure job — this was to publish my current research: i) without foreign authors; and ii) as senior or first author in more prestigious journals such as Science, Nature or PNAS. Whilst the first is possible, the second is easier said than done. Apparently, that was the only thing my CV was missing — a clearer demonstration of my calibre and merit as an independent researcher. Interestingly, for established faculty struggling to earn tenure in India, the culture emphasises quantity of publications rather than quality. And, whilst the second piece of advice (primarily from engineers, cell or molecular biologists) is sound, what was missing was perspective on research in the field of ecology — collecting and publishing groundbreaking ecology data in top journals can take years longer than other disciplines. The journals I have been publishing in are not familiar to some of the members of recruitment panels I’ve met with. I have even been asked if ‘Ibis’ and ‘Parasites & Vectors’ were proper journals. Should India be a role model for developing nations? We are struggling to keep our skilled workers, despite the spending per researcher being equivalent to a developed nation like the UK. I hope other developing countries don’t replicate the above policies, as they certainly don’t help to address some of the major longer-term developmental challenges, including a shortage of researchers. In India, with only 200,000 full time researchers (and only 14% of them women) from a population of 1.3 billion, new research institutes currently being developed end up short of skilled workers and blinkered to new research areas. This all said, I am still very excited. I have a competitive edge and enthusiasm for research where I can play a leading role in high-quality research. Perhaps, it’s time to explore science career options elsewhere, maybe in Africa, and hope no one will question my age?
Q&A: Living and working in India
In this article, Puthusserickal A. Hassan discusses balancing research and home life in India. What do you do? I am a full-time research scientist working in the field of self-assembled materials. Currently, our focus is to understand the role of antifreeze protein mimics in sustaining self-assembly at sub-zero temperatures. My research objective is to understand how small molecules undergo association in various solvents or experimental conditions, leading to an entire gamut of structures with nanometre-scale features. Looking at the structure-property correlations of such colloidal assemblies gives an insight into the role of intermolecular interactions in governing the microstructure. Many natural systems rely on such intermolecular associations to develop macroscopic objects to carry out specific functions or even to modulate their existence in extreme conditions. Puthusserickal A. Hassan Head, Nanotherapeutics and Biosensors Section, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre Do you enjoy it? Why? In my opinion, research is something you explore using your brain and sophisticated tools to understand how various processes happen in nature. Each experiment is a learning experience and gives new information which is hitherto unknown. By seeing new results, I feel like a child who gets to play with a new toy every day. What was your earliest career ambition? My ambition was to become a teacher with resources for research. During my graduate days, I wondered if I could see, one day, organic molecules the way that they are depicted in textbooks. Later, I realised that no one saw the molecules, but that the structures were deduced from a combination of different spectroscopic tools. What are some of the challenges in your job? The challenge today is that most of the scientific problems we try to address require interdisciplinary expertise. You need to expand your knowledge base by cutting across disciplines to understand how things work in nature. How do you deal with those challenges? Collaboration with experts is the best way to meet this challenge. It is not only the advanced instruments you use that are important, but also the proper utilisation and interpretation of data, which needs specialised learning across disciplines. Through discussions and collaborations with physicists and biologists, many challenges can be tackled. How does being based in India affect the way you work?< Research becomes successful once it is translated into products on the market. Despite having a good number of skilled workers, Indian industry lacks disruptive innovation. I feel that this is primarily because Indian industries do not invest enough in completely new products or processes, fearing commercial failure. For example, most pharma companies focus on the supply of generic drugs and very few attempts are being made at drug development. By incentivising industrial R&D in high-risk areas and supporting industry-academia joint projects, the transition from lab to land can be realised in many niche areas. What advice would you have for others trying to work in a similar sort of environment? It is a wonderful experience to explore new things in science. My advice is that one should first become a master in a specific area of interest. This mastery can be gained by nurturing a new idea that is just reported. This will provide the opportunity to gain knowledge about the tools and techniques needed for the specific problem. The next step is to think beyond what is reported. Speculate on an idea and see if you can prove that by using the tools you have acquired. When you prove an idea that was previously unknown, the excitement is unimaginable. What do you love about living and working in India? I love the culture of the place where I grew up. Living in India helps me to connect with my close relatives. Balancing my professional life with family, parents and relatives has been a top priority for me and being in India has made this possible. What's your top career tip to younger colleagues? First, assess your ability to explore new things in science. There may be several hurdles and failures along the way to cracking one problem. But the excitement you get once you resolve the issue is phenomenal. If you love exploring things that you have not come across before, go for research. What else would you say to others trying to build a scientific career in India? India is a hub of opportunity and it needs scientific solutions to help tackle many of its local problems – water purification, affordable healthcare and low carbon emission technologies, to name a few. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for young researchers. By addressing these challenges, you can help create an impact in society. If you have a career story that you'd like to share, then please complete this form, or send your outline by email.