Scientific research in a predominantly undergraduate institution

I love scientific research, which is a great thing because it is an indispensable part of being a true scientist. I am more fortunate than most scientists at predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUI). PUIs are places that emphasize on undergraduate teaching but which can have limited Master’s programs an almost never doctoral programs.

I am able to say that I am fortunate because I have had the honor of having exceptionally talented and responsible students. In fact, of the about 45 undergraduate and Master’s Thesis students whom I have tried to train, most belong in the category above (talented and responsible). I calculated that this roughly translates to a success rate of 94 % (93 % is actually the cutoff for an “A” in my University; it seems that I need to choose more carefully from now on… (:-D), but I digress).

I am also able to claim scientific success with my students because in many cases, I have had student coauthors in my publications, sometimes even in multiple papers. Without exception, those students that appear on papers from my group have earned coauthoship, of which I am very proud of  (here’s some of these great guys, whom I affectionately call “Minions”).

That said, science is done by people, with everything that it entails. Over the years, I have developed a series of rules to help run things smoothly in my research group, with various degrees of success. Each semester I try to send all my laboratory students a short letter outlining these rules. Here is the most recent version. What do you think?


Dear all,

Thank you for joining my research group! I hope to provide an environment that can help you achieve your academic and professional goals, while at the same time impressing upon you a fascination for the natural world and the excitement of scientific research.

Our “Mission” **The “main mission” of the Pagán Laboratory is to explore the complexities of the nervous system from a pharmacological perspective, with an emphasis on the discovery of natural or synthetic substances that can eventually help alleviate neurological conditions.
**Conflicts will most likely arise, it is human nature. That said, I expect every member of my research group to be polite and respectful. Rude behavior / gossip will not be tolerated. Also, treat every conversation with lab members (including myself) as CONFIDENTIAL.
Lab policies
**Please be aware that our laboratory works with potentially toxic chemicals; it is essential that you keep the work area clean. Use gloves whenever appropriate. Take your gloves off BEFORE COMING TO THE DESK AREA.
**When using solutions from the freezer, only thaw the ones that will be immediately used. Any solutions left outside the freezer overnight (or more) will be tossed in the garbage by yours truly.
**DO NOT eat or drink in the lab. It is OK to do so in the desk area. I have provided a small refrigerator, a microwave oven and a coffee maker for the use of our group. Please keep this area clean. Please clean any cups that you use, as well as any spills, etc.
**You must notify any accidents to me or to other faculty member if I am not around or reachable. There is a first-aid kit in the laboratory, located by the lab windows. My private cell phone number is nnn-nnn-nnnn (like I am about to post it in my blog…); do not share it with anyone.

Research / Publications
**Research is ideally a collaborative enterprise. Do not hesitate to come to me with any ideas about possible projects. I will try to accommodate your preference in terms of your specific research project. However, I will make any final decision for project assignment. Additionally, I may ask you to help one or more of your labmates whenever necessary.
**Always record your data in your laboratory notebook. DATA is DATA. Even if you think that your data does not agree with what you think is happening, even if think you made a mistake, write it down. There must be no white-outs or tears in your laboratory notebook. This is how real science is done. The laboratory notebook must stay in the lab at all times, as it is laboratory property. Do not take it home.
**One of the objectives of research is to obtain publishable data. This is how you build a reputation as a scientist. Authorship is a delicate matter, with no absolute rules. I will decide who (and in what order) will be a coauthor in any submitted publications from our research.
**Merely helping in some experiments does not guarantee authorship. Authorship is earned based on a significant contribution to the work and on a thorough understanding of the research involved, as well as with involvement in the submission and review process.

Again, welcome and please do not hesitate to talk to me if you have any questions.


Dr. Pagán

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  1. This sounds like a decent set of expectations for your students, but what should they expect of *you*?

    1. Hi! That’s actually an excellent question; the (partial) answer is actually in the very first paragraph of my “letter” to my students. That said, what do you think they should expect from me? Thanks for your comment!

      1. Your first paragraph covers abstract goals you have, but much of the rest covers concrete expectations you have for your students. Put another way, keeping a notebook is a (semi) measurable thing; how do you know you have “impressed” your students with fascination?

        So, concrete things students might expect from you, off the top of my head:
        * you will be civil (already implied, and of course I would assume so otherwise)
        * you will be safety-conscious (already implied)
        * you will be available — how available are you? (you can expect me to be in the building from X to Y…; I don’t answer e-mail after Z)
        * do the stated rules apply to you? (can a student call you out for eating in lab? how should a student handle conflict/disagreement with *you*?)
        * will you support students presenting at conferences or symposia? (I don’t know what your PUI offers; my undergrad institution had an Undergrad Research Day every spring)
        * will you supervise from a distance or direct each step?
        * can they expect your sympathy when things don’t work?

        I like your set of rules & regs, but I was an undergrad not so many years ago, and I remember how intimidating the Dos and Don’ts could sound. I think it’s valuable (and perhaps reassuring?) to remind students what it is that you offer them in return.

        1. Interesting points; I actually go over these things personally with my research students. For example. I am always available for them, and I even give the my cell phone number. They do not only present at local but also at national/international conferences (when I have the money to pay for that). Also, if they significantly contribute to the research, they can earn coauthorship in papers.

          In the initial learning steps I like to be in the lab whenever they are but as they gain experience I give more leeway…

          About when things “don’t work” , well, my philosophy is explicitly stated: data is data. I would add that I always tell them that this is why we call it research, if we knew what was going to happen, we’d just go ahead and write the paper….


          Thanks for your comment!

  2. I think it’s great to put down your policies and expectations clearly in a letter like that. The students know what to expect and hopefully it also means you have a smoother time mentoring them. 🙂

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