Getting started

Start early! Begin your search the semester before you intend to register. It may take multiple contacts before you can find a lab home. If you plan to work in a Texas Medical Center (TMC) lab outside of Rice, you will most likely need to complete various applications, immunization forms, and other paperwork as well as undergo any required training before stepping foot in the lab. (In some TMC institutions, it can take 30 days to process completed paperwork.) The entire process of finding an advisor, meeting with him/her, selecting a project, and completing the required paperwork (if non-Rice) can take from weeks to months.

Where do I start? Look at the various research summaries of the faculty on the web. Look for a lab that is interesting to you. Talk to juniors and seniors about their lab experiences. Which labs do they recommend? Discuss your research interests and goals with your academic advisor in the BioSciences Department (students with Biochemistry and Cell Biology interests have advisors even before declaring a major; see the listing at for your advisor) and ask which lab might be a good match. If you are serious about joining a particular research group, visit the lab, ask to meet the undergrads already working there, and inquire as to the best method of approaching that particular professor.

Decide what you want out of your research experience. Are you looking for a job for extra money, do you want research experience, or are you hoping for both? Would you prefer to perform mostly laboratory maintenance or do you want to be performing research as part of an ongoing project in the lab? Do you want to work for pay (including work study) and/or course credit? In some labs, paid positions will be lab maintenance and actual research will only be available for students working for credit during the academic year. However, many labs offer some paid research positions over the summer.

Narrowing your search Think about what sort of research might interest you or would further your educational goals. Research approaches are often divided into the categories of basic and applied research. While many labs participate in both approaches and the lines between the two are often blurred, it is helpful to think about these distinctions when directing your search. Basic research seeks to increase understanding of nature and not specifically to create something, to cure a disease, etc. In contrast, applied research is directed toward solving particular medical or technological problems, and often has obvious commercial applications. Regardless of your long-term interests, basic research labs can offer a broad view of biology and provide the intellectual foundation on which applied research is based. The BioSciences department at Rice is primarily a basic research department, although many of our faculty members have applied research interests as well. Within the broad area of basic research in biology there are a number of fields in which you can participate. For example, the BioSciences department includes faculty performing research in developmental biology, cell biology, microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, protein structure, enzyme kinetics, metabolism, environmental, ecological, and evolutionary biology. Remember that most applied research is a subset of an area of basic research. For example: cancer results from defects in normal cell and developmental biology, diabetes is a defect of metabolism, antibiotic resistance results from the evolution of pathogenic organisms, mad cow disease results from a defect in protein structure, and biofuels engineering requires an understanding of basic plant or bacterial metabolism.

Do not be overwhelmed by your choices. If you have not developed a preference for any particular area of research, you still can narrow your search by the recommendations of your peers or by viewing the research summaries of the faculty in the BioSciences department.

How do I contact a professor (a.k.a. principal investigator, head of a lab)? Do your homework. Most positions are not advertised, but are filled from among the students who contact the professor. Read about the professor's work and, if possible, talk with people working in the lab to get a feel for the personality and expectations of this individual and the lab. Write a personal email to the professor. Do not send a mass email to multiple faculty members or your email will be considered spam and ignored.

Your introductory email conveys an important first impression and can influence how easy it will be for you to find a lab home. All heads of research labs will have either a PhD or an MD degree and should be addressed as "Dr." or "Prof." and not "Ms., Mrs., or Mr." In your email, tell the professor who you are (name, year at Rice), why you are looking for a position in a research lab, and why you are interested in his or her lab in particular. You can include mention of any relevant course work or prior research experience, even if it was in high school. You also may want to include whether you are looking for a short (1 semester) or longer experience, whether you prefer to work for credit or for money (if you have a preference), and how many hours per week you would like to devote to lab work. Your application will be viewed with greater favor if you are considering a long-term experience and you are motivated by scientific interest. If you are considering graduate school after Rice, include this interest in the letter. If you are a seeking a research experience in support of a medical school application, only seek research experiences in which you will be intellectually engaged and motivated even if this research is not within the biological sciences. If you are not truly engaged in your research experience it may hurt rather than help your application.

How many labs should I contact? Getting into a lab is partly timing and luck, so do not be discouraged if your first efforts are not successful. You will probably need to contact several labs, one or two at a time, to find a position. If you know someone in a lab where you want to work, ask that person to put in a good word for you. If you are not successful after several attempts, you may wish to ask for feedback on your contact letter from the BIOC 310 instructor.

How do I know if I have enough time in my schedule to take Bioc 310? Research requires quality time. If you will not have a few free mornings or afternoons in your schedule, you will probably not be able to dedicate quality time to your research. You should design your research schedule in blocks of at least 2-3 hours each. Longer blocks are better, and at least some of these blocks will need to be during daylight hours when your research mentor is more likely to be present. Don't try to find time for research in one-hour chunks between classes. If you are already carrying 15 or more hours, you should think seriously about waiting a semester or eliminating another course from your schedule before enrolling in BIOC 310.

How do I register for BIOC 310? Once you have found a lab you must request a special registration override of your BioSciences professor or complete the off-campus application if your research will be in an off-campus lab. Registration overrides will be given to off-campus researchers after receiving your off-campus application and and course confirmation from your off-campus professor. Students wishing to perform research in Rice University laboratories outside of the BioSciences department for Bioc 310 credit must secure a sponsoring BCB faculty member in the BioSciences department.


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Bioc 310 more info:

Bioc 310 is coordinated with Bioc 115 as part of Reading to Research, a project designed to lead students from the scientific literature to participation in laboratory research. The Reading to Research program is funded through an HHMI Professor grant awarded to Bonnie Bartel.