It is clear that working in a lab as an undergrad can be an extremely positive and enlightening experience. Especially if one wants to pursue a career in a STEM field, or go into medicine. Not only does this experience allow you to really understand the guts of the scientific process and to gain an insight into science as a social practice, but it also provides a distinct advantage when applying to graduate or medical school. In fact, to be competitive for most graduate programs lab experience is pretty much a requirement, and if you are able to have your name on a scientific publication, then even better. I work at a fairly fancy research university with lots of resources and opportunities for undergrads to participate in research, and a large percent of our science undergrads spend some time in a research lab and several of those work on an honors thesis.
Recently I had a conversation with one of my graduate student who made a great point about how these research opportunities are not accessible to many students that could benefit from it. Many students, as part of their financial aid package, are on a work-study program. Which means that they have to spend several hours a week working a university job to cover their financial aid. Typically this means working at the cafeteria, library or other places on campus. Oddly, for reasons that neither I nor my student could track down, working in a lab is not one of the options for fulfilling work-study obligations. Since underrepresented minority and first generation college students make up a large amount of students on financial aid, these groups are thus denied the opportunities that many of their peers have that don’t have these obligations for 10 - 20 hours per week, further putting them at a disadvantage compared to other students in STEM. I’ve tried to figure out why working in a lab is not applicable. If they are allowed to spend 10 hours a week checking out books at the library or cashing people out at the cafeteria, why can’t they spend this time instead doing scientific research? This problem also extends to summers. While the university has several fellowships to support student researchers in the summer, this is not enough to fulfill summer earnings obligations for many students on financial aid. I’ve had several of my students turn down summer fellowships, because they simply didn’t pay enough.
I wonder if others have experienced similar things at their home institutions, and if not, what has your university done to facilitate URMs and first generation students ability to work in a research lab?