Training undergraduates through research networks

By Joseph Groom


Jensen-Ryan D, Murren CJ, Rutter MT, and Thompson JJ. Advancing Science while Training Undergraduates: Recommendations from a Collaborative Biology Research Network. CBE – Life Sciences Education (2020). 19: es13. doi: 10.1187/cbe.20-05-0090.

As a postdoc interested in a faculty position at a primarily undergraduate institution, I think a lot about how to effectively mentor students in my lab but also maintain a productive research program. I looked to this article for suggestions from faculty members with extensive experience leading an undergraduate research network.

What it is

Jensen-Ryan et al (2020) highlight a successful undergraduate biology research network (BRN) in CBE-Life Sciences Education. They wanted to synthesize what has been learned about running a BRN by identifying key successes, challenges, and recommendations. So, they interviewed a bunch of faculty members who have been a part of an 8-year BRN, and then coded the transcripts of those interviews.. They found that the BRN diversified access to scientific research, and improved student experiences, scientific outcomes, and faculty professional development. But they also found “goal conflict”: producing data and mentoring students are not necessarily aligned. Nonetheless, while data production was slower than anticipated, the positive student outcomes were very apparent. They recommend that mentors (1) use stringent laboratory protocols that can be modified through student work, (2) have dedicated personnel for management of the project, and (3) choose appropriate collaborators with agreed-upon expectations.

My take home message

The BRN works like other multi-institutional data-sharing projects, like model organism genetics databases and the Human Genome Project. This article helped me see how these databases can be used to support undergraduate research and mentoring. I began thinking about the benefits of an undergraduate research network in comparison to a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE). The authors noted that the development of students as scientific questioners, and the offering of an authentic scientific experience rather than a “cookbook” experience available in traditional lab courses. CUREs try to do this, too, but they do that within courses instead of as an extracurricular research experience. It turns out that CUREs can be created using preliminary work from a BRN.

How it’s helping me think about teaching

I appreciated the specific descriptions of challenges that could arise if I want to develop a research component in my future academic position. The lessons learned from this undergraduate biological research network are applicable to so many research programs involving undergrads—namely a strict list of protocols for students to learn and teach one another, and an efficient and dedicated structure for administration and data interpretation.

The paper used specific examples to show that the synergies they describe are concrete. Students better the science by showing innovation in protocol design and improvement. Science betters students by allowing them to travel, build relationships with faculty and communicate their work. The science-student interaction betters faculty by allowing the faculty to host multi-institutional project meetings, develop project-related CUREs, and establish a mentorship system. This mentorship system has helped junior members maintain teaching and research obligations and eventually secure tenure track jobs and achieve tenure.