ASU study shows positive lab environment critical for undergraduate success in research

August 14, 2019

Getting involved in research as an undergraduate can have significant benefits, such as enhancing a student's ability to think critically, increasing their understanding of how to conduct a research project and improving the odds that they'll complete a degree program in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

And, for students who participate in research over several years, the benefits are even greater. They often develop greater confidence in their research skills, an ability to solve problems independently and are more likely to pursue a career in STEM.

But many undergraduates drop out of their research experience before graduation or even during their first year working in a biology lab. Until now, there has been no research as to why.

In a study published today in PLOS ONE, a group of 14 undergraduate Arizona State University co-authors addressed this question as part of a class project. Led by School of Life Sciences Associate Professor Sara Brownell, graduate student Logan Gin, and University of Central Florida Assistant Professor Katelyn Cooper, students with the LEAP Scholars program surveyed more than 750 life sciences undergraduates doing research in 25 public institutions across the U.S. They found that 50% of students who participated in the study had considered leaving their undergraduate research experience, and ultimately, more than 50% of those students decided to leave.

They also found that the most important factors that influence whether a student decides to continue working in research included a positive lab environment and enjoying their everyday research tasks, as well as flexible schedules, positive social interactions and feeling included. Students also persisted with their research when they felt they were learning important skills and perceived the work was important to their career goals.

"We often assume that all undergraduate research experiences are positive for students, but this study shows that this is not the case. If 50% of students consider leaving their undergraduate research experience, then that means that we have a structural problem with how we are integrating students in undergraduate research," said senior author Brownell. "We can empower students with more knowledge about undergraduate research to help them choose a suitable lab, but we also need to find ways to make our research labs more positive environments for all students."

Other factors, such as race, gender, GPA and college generation status, also play a role in what factors influence students to persist in their research experiences. Men were more likely than women to stay in research because it's important for their future careers. Men were also more likely to leave their research experience because they didn't enjoy their specific lab tasks, while women were more likely to consider leaving because of a lack of flexibility in the lab.

Underrepresented minority students were more likely to leave their research work because they felt they were not learning important skills, while white students were more likely to stay in research because they enjoyed their everyday lab tasks. And, students with lower GPAs were more likely to stay in research because they were unsure about future research opportunities, while those with higher GPAs were more likely to leave research because they did not enjoy the everyday lab tasks.

"We were excited to identify factors that disproportionately affected underrepresented and marginalized students' decisions to leave research. It will be challenging to identify solutions, but identifying these issues is a critical step in developing a more diverse and inclusive scientific community," said Gin.

For faculty members who invest time and resources to train undergraduates to work in their labs, this study provides important insight that can be used to shape their student lab experiences, develop support policies and improve mentor and mentee relationships.

"What was most surprising to us was the importance of the lab environment and the interactions among people in the lab," said lead author Katelyn Cooper. "When we hire faculty members to run research labs, we often are looking for the smartest people with the best research ideas. However, this study highlights that if we want to maximize the success of undergraduates in research, we need to be selecting for supportive faculty who can create positive working environments."

Brownell and her co-instructors lead ASU's LEAP Scholars program, a four-semester scholarship program funded by the National Science Foundation to help community college transfer students get involved in undergraduate science research. Because many transfer students need to work a job while attending college, the LEAP program provides scholarships and mentors so they can work in a research lab instead and focus full-time on their coursework.
-end-


Arizona State University

Related Science Articles from Brightsurf:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.

Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.

Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.

World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.

PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.

Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.

Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.

Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.

Read More: Science News and Science Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.