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How To Become a Lab Rat as an Undergraduate Student

By Léa Montminy-Bergeron

In highschool, my favourite part of my science course were the experiments that we performed in our “laboratories.” This might hit close to home for many other STEM kids, who just like me, were so excited to start doing all sorts of research, participate in scientific discoveries, and conduct experiments! We’re basically all vultures for titrations and TLCs. Unfortunately, it can be a bit disappointing to find out that first year laboratories are repeated from year to year, and no groundbreaking stuff is happening there. Since research seems so interesting, we all want to get involved in some way! It is also important since graduate programs or related jobs for students require prior knowledge and experience in the laboratory. In this blog, I will give you a few ways to gain those skills!

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP)

UROP is a great way to gain valuable research or laboratory experience as an undergraduate student in any discipline. This grant is available for students who have completed at least one year of undergraduate studies. By participating in this program, students will receive a $1,000 scholarship, devote dozens of hours in an academic year to working on their research project with a selected member of the faculty, compose a research proposal, gather their results, and present their findings during the annual UROP poster symposium. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity to gain research experience at the undergraduate level. Students are also able to gain hands-on experience in their field of study which can help prepare them for graduate studies and future career development. You also gain a chance to build a closer relationship with professors or faculty members.

Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) - Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA)

These awards are destined to nurture your interests and help you fully develop your potential for a career as a research scientist in the natural sciences or even engineering. They are also great to encourage you to pursue graduate studies in the field of your choosing. Students who are chosen for this grant will receive $4,500 for research purposes. It is required that you maintain a GPA higher than 3.0 on the 4.0 scale to be considered, although 3.5 is considered a competitive GPA.

Undergraduate research assistants - Undergraduate Research Scholarship

If you are lucky enough to connect with a professor or researcher, you might be able to get a position as an undergraduate research assistant (paid or unpaid, depending on your level). In these roles, students are usually employed part-time and perform basic laboratory duties, and assist the researchers in their tasks. All of the duties are to be completed under the supervision of the project manager, or main researcher. For the research scholarship, specifically at the University of Ottawa, students must apply in Grade 12 and are required to have a 92% admission average. This scholarship is awarded by the Faculty of Science each year to sixteen (16) deserving students, and have a value of $10,000 each. It is very unique, since recipients are able to work with scientists and take part in interesting discoveries before even starting their university studies.

Laboratories associated with courses

This last one might seem obvious at first, but many students overlook the laboratories they take with classes and don’t consider them like valuable lab experience. While I do agree with the fact that everyone is partaking in the same experiments therefore not discovering anything particularly interesting, I find that students are still able to perfect their skills with the materials and learn necessary skills and techniques. This applies to almost every discipline, whether biology, chemistry, physics, engineering, programming, biochem, etc.

Your options to obtain lab experience as an undergraduate student are obviously not limited to those I listed! These are frankly just my recommendations from what I’ve heard about and that are more popular among students. Feel free to do your own research, to, ironically, find research!

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