Paul D. Heideman

                     Undergraduate Research Student Expectations

    I've written this description of my expectations of students because I want to make sure that all of us understand what we expect of each other when doing research in my laboratory.  One of the major reasons I'm here is my enjoyment in teaching people how to do science by doing real research projects with them, and in helping them develop a realistic and professional approach to scientific research.  This document provides a professional framework upon which we will interact, me as mentor and you as aspiring scientist.

    What you should get out of this experience is an understanding of how good, rigorous science is conducted, instruction in developing your technical writing skills, and the chance to help write a published paper on which you are a coauthor.  All of these should be realistic possibilities for you, as I do not normally accept research students working on projects that I do not believe could be publishable.  You will need to be realistic with me regarding your skills, goals, and time.  It generally takes undergraduates a minimum of one year of working in the laboratory with me to do enough research to become a coauthor on a paper, and most students have needed two years in the laboratory.  Historically, about one in three of the undergraduates I've worked with has become a coauthor on a published paper.  My experience is that the keys to a student becoming a coauthor with me on a paper turn out to be individual levels of time available, ambition, motivation, and sheer dogged perseverance in the face of set-backs and bad luck.
Your Time
    The time commitment to research tends to be one of the most important issues for students and mentors.  I assume that a minimum study-week for a student is 45 hours.  Each credit hour of research will require a minimum of 3-4 hours each week (unless we negotiate something different before you sign up for the course).  If you take on a project that requires more time, then you are implicitly agreeing to spend the additional time.  Don't attempt a particular research project if you know that you don't have the time to do it.  Circumstances that legitimately modify this commitment include illness or, in the short term, personal emergencies.  Time lost for these reasons will be made up later, unless we agree that this is not necessary or would create serious hardship. 
    I haven't usually needed to monitor student time and commitment to a project closely.  If you are working on schedule and meeting commitments and deadlines, I will be satisfied with your progress.  Failure to meet time commitments and deadlines is reasonably common for students; it isn't good, but it isn't a disaster.  If it happens, we should meet to find a solution.  If we can't find a way for you to stay motivated and to progress on your project, after significant time and effort devoted to finding ways to keep you progressing, then I will ask you to leave my laboratory; if you don't like your project, are scared of it, or aren't working because you're too busy following other interests, then I can't train you and you can't learn.

My Time
    You have a right to 1 hour a week of my time (and depending upon the project, you may have more, but you may also need yet); it will be your responsibility to make sure that you get the time you need.  Be careful to use the time well.  You can and should use me as a source of advice on careers as well as your project.  You may interrupt me at my desk, but please be aware that every interruption, no matter how minor, costs me at least 5 minutes, and often more, while I refocus on my task, so you should think about whether a particular question merits an interruption or whether you might be able to wait until another, better, time with a series of questions.  You can call me at home for important questions, but should find me in the lab/office for questions that can wait.  If I find that you are interrupting more than I feel is appropriate, you can have confidence that I'll tell you and suggest ways to decide when you should interrupt me. 
Ideas (Intellectual Property)
    I consider ideas that come out of my laboratory to be my intellectual property unless we have agreed differently.  This means that you cannot take an idea with you to follow up for work elsewhere without consulting me.  Similarly, you may not offer intellectual property or materials developed in my lab to other scientists without my consent.  People have imperfect memories, so if you regard an idea as yours, make sure that you have it in writing, in detail, in a form that we both agree correctly describes your contribution, and do this early!  This has never become an issue for me, but it occasionally happens that two parties disagree on their relative contributions to an idea, and the relative importance of coming up with the basic idea vs the development of that idea into a viable project.
    You will be an author on a published paper if you have provided a substantial portion of the intellectual and physical work involved, and have completed your portion of the project satisfactorily.  This involves participation in both the writing and the research work involved.  You will not be a coauthor if you fail to complete your project, complete it unsatisfactorily, or don't write it up.  All of these things happen fairly frequently, and often for very good reasons.  I won't necessarily be upset with you in these cases, but they could keep you from being a coauthor on a paper.
    I believe that all authors of a paper ought to have contributed substantially to it intellectually and ought to be able to defend it in front of a scientific audience in that field.   First authorship requires that you put in the majority of the intellectual effort and completed the project, including the writing!  If I or another student played the major role in conducting the experiments, analysis, and/or writing the manuscript, or if someone else had to come in to clean up and finish a project that you couldn't, I or they probably will be the first author of the manuscript.  If you cannot finish a project under my supervision, you may forfeit your rights to be first author, regardless of how much of the work was yours (even if an important part of the intellectual contribution was yours).  You might still be a coauthor, and you would certainly retain the right to be acknowledged (in the Acknowledgments section) for your contributions to the project.  The rationale for this is simple.  If you don't finish a project, you haven't played the leading role in it.

Data and Lab Notebooks
    For each project, you should have a lab notebook that explains, logs, and documents (e.g., with shipping labels or invoices pasted in or photocopied, with the tags from research materials, etc.) your methods, your materials, your procedures, and all of your original data.  The lab notebook stays in the lab; I should be able to gain access to your lab notebook at any time.  You should keep photocopies of the lab manual for yourself (talk to me if this would involve hundreds of pages).  Electronic copies should also be backed up in at least one place in addition to your working copies.  One way to do that is to send me copies.

Animal Care
    Proper care of animals and concern for animal welfare is essential in any science that uses laboratory animals.  Mammals used as laboratory subjects must be treated so as to minimize discomfort, pain, and suffering to the maximum extent that is reasonable.  There are good guidelines for animal care and welfare available from virtually all scientific societies, as well as from the USDA and NIH, and I will expect you to become familiar with them as required by your project. 
    I will take mistreatment of animals very seriously.  A single instance of gross negligence or deliberate mistreatment in animal care will be sufficient grounds for me to ask a student to leave my laboratory.
    The use of animals in laboratory research is an important ethical issue as well.  I expect you to think about the issues and develop your own sense of appropriate uses of animals in research and society.  I feel very strongly that research using animals is very important to society as a whole.  However, I view this as an issue in which there is no single clear "right" answer.  A legitimate goal of yours in the laboratory may be an exploration of the issue and discovery of whether you are comfortable with doing animal research (a separate issue from whether you believe that a particular type of research is appropriate).  This is a subject in which I am very interested, so I will discuss it with you at the drop of a hint.

Work Habits and Equipment
    Successful research requires clean and neat work areas and clean and functional equipment.  I expect you to clean up every mess you make (even if it wasn't really your fault), and to handle equipment carefully and competently.  I will accept honest mistakes, and I expect you to tell me if you think that there is even the slightest chance that you have damaged equipment.  The usual consequence for minor laboratory errors will be extra time at glassware washing or other cleanup jobs.  In addition, I will probably hold you responsible for the time required to clean up or replace a part.  I will not accept a pattern of negligence, carelessness, or unwillingness to share in routine laboratory maintenance tasks.  Evidence of either of these as a continuing or dangerous pattern would be reason for someone to leave the laboratory. 

    Safety is more important than anything else in the lab.  Learn and practice safe laboratory procedures and learn what to do in an emergency.  Wear gloves and eye protection while handling potentially dangerous chemicals.  If you don't know whether or not a particular action is dangerous, then you shouldn't do it.
    Don't do anything unsafe in order to "save" an experiment.  I would rather have you (or me) lose a difficult experiment than have you put yourself at risk.

Visitors to the Lab

    Please check with me before bringing someone else into the laboratory for a visit, tour, etc.  I have seen experiments/equipment ruined because of an innocent mistake by an unaware visitor, including things as apparently innocuous as a distracting question during a difficult procedure.  In addition, some of the chemicals we handle are truly dangerous.  While you are aware of proper behavior, and have implicitly agreed to accept the risks, that is not true of a typical visitor.  I prefer to keep visits and tours to a minimum, but feel free to check with me if you want to show your parents or a close friend what you do in the lab. 

Borrowing Policy
    Don't borrow anything without permission, and, when you have permission don't remove anything from the lab (not even for Xeroxing downstairs) without leaving me a written note with your name, the title/name of the object, and the date.  I should warn you that I hate not having something available when I need it!

Additional Information
    There is more information in my comments specifically for graduate students, and I would encourage you to read the last few pages ("Additional Comments and Information"--see the Guide to the Heideman Laboratory notebook in the lab; if you are a prospective research student, feel free to ask me to show you the notebook or request a copy). 

    If you have any questions about these or other topics, and when you have questions about how well you are progressing, or if you need something explained for the nth time, ask me!  There are no taboo subjects or questions. 

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Last updated  28/2008
College of William and Mary, Department of Biology