Making undergraduate research accessible to everyone

Apr 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

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?

11 responses so far

  • PaleoGould says:

    I know Terry McGlynn (@Hormiga) has blogged about Federal Work Study being ineligible for lab work https://smallpondscience.com/2014/10/15/does-your-campus-allow-federal-work-study-awards-for-undergraduate-research/

  • Anon says:

    Someone at your school's financial aid office has probably mis-interpreted the federal work study program rules. At every university I've been at, which includes big state schools in the northwest, mid-west, southwest and south, I've always had work-study students eligible for research positions. I have in fact written to my congress people talking about what a wonderful avenue to make a STEM career eligible for first generation students and students from under-represented groups. It's also something I highlight as a mechanism to identify and recruit such students to my lab in my NSF proposals.

    From my reading of the legislation, regarding federal work study at least 7% of the funds to any institution need to be used for community service, and the work-study position should not take a job away from an employee, but other than that there is huge latitude in what are eligible jobs. The only reason I could see for your school not allowing lab work is that there is state money that is used to supplement the federal program and the state money comes with restrictions. Perhaps your financial Aid office needs to be educated about the legislation underlying the federal work study program.

    • namnezia says:

      One of the challenges has been to identify who is responsible for setting the policy. Even a dean I was working with couldn't figure this out.

  • Anonymous says:

    I have been at a number of private and state universities in the Northeast, as both a student and faculty. We have 2 work study students in our lab right now. I worked in a lab through work study as an undergrad eons ago. Never been a problem.

  • David says:

    I worked in a lab as part of the work-study program at my undergraduate university. It was awesome. Didn't get any publications, but the experience was well worth it. I think the professor running the lab liked it and I know his grad students loved the free labor.

    • namnezia says:

      So it seems like technically there's no barrier, just some weird rule somewhere that should be possible to get to the bottom of.

      • David says:

        That's what I gather from the link posted by PaleoGould.

        I remember classmates telling me that you couldn't do research as a work-study, even after I told them that I was doing it. I think sometimes people hear something, choose to believe it, and never question if its actually true. If a student does this, they miss out on an opportunity. If someone in administration does this, many people miss out.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I worked in a lab for work study in college (after a miserable year in the library reserves), and students here are also eligible.

  • JB says:

    I am pretty sure that at least some of our WS students work in the lab on scientific projects in my institution. I use WS students for maintenance jobs (animal care, stocking, etc.) while my 'research' students are typically doing the work for credit.

    We also have an endowed summer research project that pays about 50-55 students to do research between 8-10 weeks.

  • postdoc says:

    right...except who is funding these work study students to do lab work? That seems like the buggest barrier, since undergrads are typically unpaid for this work...

  • AScientist says:

    I also used my work-study funding to work in a laboratory, as well as more typical departmental office type work. But I have never had a student on work study in my lab (or at least use work-study funding for it), even though I ask. Maybe it's a state institution (here) vs private (my undergrad institution) thing.

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