Undergraduate Student Research
Students at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are exposed to a wide variety of learning experiences. One of the best ways for a student to gain knowledge beyond the textbook is to engage in original research.
Types of Undergraduate Research
An amazing variety and quantity of research is conducted in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Study areas include basic and applied research in agriculture, food and nutrition, life sciences, environmental sciences, and the social and behavioral sciences. Scientific investigation takes place in laboratories, in greenhouses, and in the "field," under controlled environmental conditions; researchers can also be found collecting information in settings as diverse as food superstores, media organizations, farms, and tropical rain forests. Whatever the type or setting, all research conducted in the College is motivated by its relevance to society and designed to lead to improved human well being in New York State, the nation, and the world.
CALS undergraduate students are often active participants in the research process, joining teams composed of faculty members, graduate students, post-doctoral students, and others. Some students hold paid positions, others participate in honors research, and still others take part through credit-bearing courses. In the latter case, hundreds of CALS students enroll in Undergraduate Research 4990 and Individual Study 4970 each year. The experience is positive for undergraduates in many ways: students become valuable members of a research team while designing and conducting their own projects; they integrate research with course work and career plans; they experience the excitement of discovery; and they have the opportunity to develop stronger ties to faculty members, promoting a sense of collegiality and leading to mentoring relationships that last for years. Some students have even become co-authors of significant papers published in refereed journals, co-inventors on patent disclosures, and speakers at national conferences.
While the overall outlook for undergraduate involvement in research activities is very positive, there are some limitations. For example, positions are not always available in a given facility or with a particular professor. Also, students must often work into their desired positions, perhaps by taking prerequisite courses or by starting in a very routine role in the laboratory (e.g. performing setup or cleanup). The most exciting positions are usually awarded to the students who are very active in identifying, pursuing, and preparing for them. Students must take initiative but help is available.
The following information is meant to guide students in their preparation for securing an exciting research position, whether with individual professors, research centers, or institutes. The focus is on opportunities and general guidelines within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; however information is also available to CALS students who wish to explore possibilities across campus as well.
Undergraduates who become involved in faculty research either receive academic credit for their involvement and learning, receive pay for their research contributions, or volunteer their time to a project. Individual students and their faculty mentors should determine the best course of action based upon the needs and interests of both the student and those in the research setting.
The following information describes each of the potential options.
Courses that provide an academic framework for undergraduate research are offered in each CALS academic department. Typically, the department's 4990 course is reserved for undergraduate research and the 4970 course for individual study. To explore the option to receive research credits, students should consult with their faculty advisors and the Courses of Study. Research for credit usually lasts one or two semesters, and the number of credits is assigned by the involved faculty member.
- Enrollment: For all students interested in enrolling, please refer to the undergraduate special studies enrollment website.
Many research positions are paid. Recent data show that 16 percent of working Cornell students are employed in research-type positions. While students who are eligible for work-study funding have an advantage, there are paid positions that do not require such eligibility. The Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment can provide additional information.
A student volunteer receives neither pay nor credit; however, a volunteer position may be a first step toward a more advanced paid or credited position. Students, especially underclassmen, must sometimes work their way into an appealing research setting or project by first committing time in a more routine role or developing basic skills that will enable them to become more qualified for the research work they eventually want to do. Volunteering can also be a great way for a student to demonstrate enthusiasm for the research work of a professor.
Any CALS student may explore research opportunities by identifying research efforts they find intriguing and professors whose work they admire. Selecting the right research project and faculty mentor can be an arduous task requiring a fair amount of investigation, but there are many resources designed to assist students with their search:
- The course descriptions provided by various academic departments can help students identify appealing subject matter that aligns with their interests. Contacting the professor(s) is a great first step in networking and finding potential research opportunities.
- Most academic department web pages provide information regarding faculty research; many also include current research projects and interests, as well as a list of recent publications. Students should explore faculty within their own major and in any others that interest them.
- Students should read publications authored by professors whose work they find appealing. Such preparation shows initiative and makes a good impression.
- Academic advisors are a great resource, especially with regard to research conducted within their own departments. Often, they can either direct students toward faculty whose research interests are complementary or enlighten them to previously unconsidered possibilities.
- Departments routinely host symposia and seminars during which students and/or faculty present their research. Interested undergraduates should attend sessions that focus on their area(s) of interest and connect with researchers with whom they might want to work. Notices of such events are commonly found on bulletin boards in the various departments.
- Students interested in biological research should visit the Biology Center in 216 Stimson Hall and review the notebooks containing faculty research statements and the possibilities for student involvement. Other helpful information includes: advice on the best way to set up an appointment, types of research activities available, and possibilities for summer research. Additionally, prospective research students often find helpful the notebook of comments from undergraduates who have done or are presently doing research.
Once some of the exploratory activities described above have been completed, the next step is to schedule a meeting with one or more faculty members identified as possible mentors. Students should make the purpose of the meeting clear when they arrange the appointment. Students who are certain that they want to work on a particular professor’s research should view the meeting like a job interview, where they aim to make a great impression and convince the professor that they should be part of his or her team. Other students may still be exploring possibilities and simply want to gather information such as: a description of the research, the possibility of undergraduate involvement, the likelihood of an available position, requirements, etc. Students should be candid about nature of the meeting when the appointment is made.
When scheduling the appointment, students should respect and adhere to the professor's preferences; some may want a support staff person to arrange a day and time, others may prefer using e-mail, and still others may suggest a visit during office hours. Whatever the procedure, students should not feel reluctant to approach faculty; most enjoy having undergraduates involved in their research! Courtesy and polite persistence are keys to success.
The following are some additional suggestions to help lead to a productive meeting:
- Students should bring a polished and up-to-date resume. The Career team in the CALS Student Services Office, 140 Roberts Hall, can assist in producing a well-written resume that conveys strengths and helps to make a good impression.
- Initially, students should be pragmatic about the role they might serve on the research team; many students start by performing routine tasks, such as data entry, before working their way into more challenging roles. Specific prerequisite coursework or background knowledge may also be required.
- Professors expect and accept that students explore many different research options; they appreciate students who are courteous and direct with their intentions.
- Students should not be discouraged by rejections or disappointments, as they are often part of the process. Persistence and creativity will lead to a fruitful research relationship.
- Research teams are often composed of many individuals, including graduate and postdoctoral students. Undergraduates may not always work directly with the faculty member, but the main goal is to gain experience by working on exciting research with a team of great people.
- When considering a research position, students are encouraged to request a meeting with the person who will supervise their work and discuss the criteria upon which they will be evaluated. A comfortable relationship with the research supervisor is key to a productive experience.
- For laboratory-based research, students are encouraged to visit the lab prior to accepting a position. Talking to student workers and asking questions will help to determine if the type of research and working environment are an appropriate match.
- Not all research takes place in laboratories! Students may also want to consider field-based or social science research.
College and University Funding Sources
While Cornell offers a variety of funding opportunities for undergraduates, they can be difficult to locate, given the complexity of the University. The following list of sources and ideas encompasses offices and information from across the university, though it is not exhaustive.
Fellowships are endowments used to provide financial support to individuals pursuing advanced study or training. They can be for schooling, travel to certain countries, or projects within a given organization or group. See the Cornell University Fellowships Program for more information.
Financial Aid Office
The financial aid office is a great resource for outside scholarships and grants, though usually applicable for tuition assistance. Access the Financial Aid Office web site for more information.
CALS Research Funding
Several funding opportunities are available through the College. Access the Student Research tab for details, including proposal development instructions and deadlines.
Olin Library maintains an extensive and helpful section on grants and scholarships. For assistance, contact the reference desk librarian.
The “L” section of the Mann Library reference area is also helpful. It contains great resources, such as: Free Money for College from the Government.
Office of Academic Programs*
The Office of Academic Programs provides research grants to eligible Cornell students. The Undergraduate and Graduate Student Grants pages provide details of funding eligibility and proposal deadlines. Contact sh104 [at] cornell.edu (Dr. Sarah Giroux) for more information.
Student Assembly Summer Experience Grant
The Student Assembly Summer Experience Grant (SASEG) is designed to aid students to complete summer unpaid or minimally paid career-related experiences. It is meant to help students who would not be able to take on a summer career-related experience or would have a difficult time doing so. The funds are drawn from the Students Helping Students fund and are open to first-years, sophomores, and juniors in all seven undergraduate colleges. Each college’s career office will be reading their own students’ applications, but the main administration of the grant will be coordinated by A&S Career Development.
Whether you are an undergraduate, graduate or professional student, there is Engaged Cornell funding to support your community-based travel and research.
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society*
This society provides grants to undergraduate and graduate research projects in any field. It offers general research funding, especially for travel and equipment expenses. Students may apply to both the Cornell chapter and the national headquarters for funding.
Student Employment Office
Through a number of assistance programs, the Student Employment Office subsidizes wages for students with work-study during the academic year and the summer. The "Develop Your Own Internship Program" provides summer subsidy for students with work-study. Work-study financial assistance is available until the funds are exhausted, so students are encouraged to apply early. Call 607-255-5145 for more information; or visit the office in 203 Day Hall.
No single source, including this one, will identify all possible options. Networking is, by far, the best tool. Students interested in funding opportunities should contact as many individuals in as many different environments as possible; they should ask for ideas and leads and pursue each one. The CALS Career Development Office can provide helpful information sheets on the networking process, and it also maintains a list of Faculty and Staff Career Representatives. The list contains the names of people in the College’s academic departments who serve as official liaisons with the Career Development Office. These individuals are great starting points for networking.
*These offices and programs include graduate study and research.
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