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Advice for students starting out in research

Shubha Tole

Students just starting out in a lab are often overwhelmed with the real world of research, particularly in India, where the large majority of undergraduates have never been in a research lab. But for a few exceptions, undergraduate education takes place in institutions with little or no active ongoing research. “laboratory practicals” are usually reduced to simple procedures- spectophotometry, plating bacteria etc- in which the desired end result is known and has to be achieved so that the “journal” looks neat and perfect- a requisite for getting good grades at the end of the year. When students emerging from such backgrounds enter a research program, there is much to learn and they are understandably overwhelmed. What should such a student aim to achieve after a year of reading papers, attending seminars courses and journal clubs, and beginning to acquire basic experimental skills? At our institute, students prepare two “Project seminars” as part of their comprehensive examination – the first a “project area review” and the second a “project proposal” for which they write their proposed experiment in a grant format. Here is what we advise them, which may be of use to the wider student community. This particular piece will focus on what students can aim for in terms of understanding their chosen research area.

 — history of your area (what findings opened this area of research? What were the significant milestones in understanding?)

 — what held back the field so that XX experiment only happened in 2005? What was the limitation before? What has been the progress since?

 — current status of the field (what were the findings in the most recent year or two? Where appropriate, what is the “state of the art” in terms of technology?

 — what is the accepted standard in the field to answer the type of question you want to focus on?

 — What are the open questions? Where is the area headed? You might engage your colleagues, even your PI in conversations including but not limited to “why are we pursuing this particular angle and not this other angle I have come across that is an open question in the field?”

This level of understanding that will allow you to put your own work in a broader context within your own field and across fields. This should hopefully lead to an appreciation of key “turning points” in the process of scientific inquiry- key experiments, individuals, collaborations- or conflicts- that shaped the progress of the field to where it stands today.

I invite comments to extend this discussion of what it means to acquire expertise- intellectual as well as experimental. Subsequent pieces will elaborate on aspects of this “acquiring expertise”.