On the value of research experiences

Jan 04 2012 Published by under Careers, Life

It's a new year. Already. And applications for positions in the NSF REU program I run are beginning to arrive. Already.

Of late I've been thinking, once again, about the value of providing research experiences to undergraduates. Or anyone for that matter. My recent thoughts were catalyzed by a conversation I recently had with a non-scientist. This person had just read a newspaper article reporting on a recent study that found some kind of link between carbohydrate intake and breast cancer. I haven't read the study, or even the newspaper article. Indeed, the details of the study are unimportant as fas as this post is concerned. What is important is the statement the non-scientist made concerning the article. They said they don't believe any of these kinds of studies because there are far too many things going on and it would be impossible to pinpoint one factor that might be involved in a particular human condition. Or words to that effect.

It certainly is true that scientific research can be very, very complex. At times mind-bogglingly so. But research scientists are trained to deal with exactly that. And someone who has had some research experience, even if just a few weeks over a summer, will know that. Even if they don't know exactly how a study into possible links between carbohydrates and breast cancer would be done.* Should one believe every newspaper report on a scientific study? Of course not. Neither should one believe everything published in the primary literature. But one should not dismiss something out of hand simply because you don't know how it's done.

A research experience is scientific literacy.

* I don't. It's rather far removed from what I do.

10 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    It blows my mind when people hold the belief that something they can't understand must be therefore un-understandable and/or impossible. I, for one, have no idea how to build a car or even how much of it works, really (WTF catalytic converter?), but I believe that there are people who do, and trust those people enough to even use a car from time to time. Why people can't take the same attitude about science and medicine is baffling.

    Related-- I have four undergrads (all freshmen!) starting in the lab next week, and I'm feeling terrified but also so, so excited to help make science research awesome and accessible for them.

    • odyssey says:

      Four all starting at the same time is a lot! Try to do a bunch of the introductory stuff with them all together - it will help them to feel a part of the group. And keep in mind that undergrads can be slow to get up and running. Not always - some hit the ground running - but some you will have to have some patience for. Have fun!

      • Dr Becca says:

        I know! But I've scheduled them so they're working in pairs, and my tech has been amazing at organizing them with all their paperwork and safety training. We have our first lab meeting on Wednesday!

    • tideliar says:

      excellent analogy Becca

  • Bashir says:

    A research experience is scientific literacy.

    That's basically what our PI says. We have tons of student's who come through for a semester or two and then don't touch science again. It our once chance to show them how it generally works. So they at least "get it".

    • odyssey says:

      Providing research experiences to undergrads/high school students etc. shouldn't be all about trying to make researchers out of them. It should be, as you say, about them "getting it."

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Dr Becca is talking about the common argument from incredulity. I've coauthored several papers with undergraduate students and a number with graduate students as well. At my university department one received merit points for student presentation at meeting or student authorship. We developed several labs for the introductory courses which are research project labs. Just fun stuff, not at the publishable level.

  • JollyRgr says:

    It seems to be a sign of the loss of rational thought and intelligence in the general populace..........media in it's may forms seems to be 'dumbing down' most of what it reports..........many people seems to be satisfied with being told, rather than thinking!!!

  • Goose says:

    Odyssey, you have just made the perfect argument for the program I work for... While all our high school students get a research experience, we're not trying to train researchers... just people who will think critically.

  • O.R. Pagan says:

    Thanks for the post! I absolutely agree. We live in a society in which a working knowledge of science and how it is done is increasingly neccesary...