A brief guide to undergraduate STEM research at Yale
Everything you need to know about finding and thriving in a research lab both in and out of Yale.
Zoe Berg, Senior Photographer
Finding a research opportunity that is both attainable and challenging can be daunting, especially for students with no previous experience.
However, Yale offers a wide range of resources for undergraduates to find the best possible fit.
“I wish I had these opportunities when I was a Yale undergrad; we had nothing like this back in the ‘80s,” said Sandy Chang ’88, associate dean of STEM education and undergraduate research. “It is amazing that Yale has invested so much money into STEM opportunities for undergrads.”
Where do I find research opportunities?
The first place to start looking for labs and research groups is Yale’s Science and QR website, which lists summer fellowships, grant applications and resources for finding professors interested in taking on undergraduates. The site also includes a list of lab groups looking for undergraduates, both in biological science departments and in physical science departments, which includes brief descriptions of the projects each group is working on, as well as contact information.
The Yale Undergraduate Research Association is another useful resource. A student-run organization, its goal is to connect undergraduate students interested in research with mentors, resources and other undergraduate researchers. Their website provides, among other useful resources, a link to a database of nearly 300 different labs within Yale that could potentially accept undergraduates.
“I found the Gilbert Lab by looking through the YURA database for molecular biochemistry labs and emailing a handful of [Principal Investigators] to set up interviews,” Anya AitSahlia ’25 said. “After a few meetings with my PI, Wendy Gilbert, to discuss potential research project ideas, I knew that I wanted to pursue summer research in the Gilbert Lab.”
How do I join a lab?
After identifying five to 10 possible lab groups of interest, Chang said, the next step is to email the PIs of the groups, mentioning your year, major and a resume — if you don’t yet have a resume, a brief description of possible relevant experience and coursework will suffice.
According to Chang, the most important part of the email is to demonstrate that you have read some of the professor’s research — including one or two of their previous papers — and that you understand the work that you’re hoping to become involved in.
Furthermore, talking to other students involved in a particular lab group is a great way to learn more about the research itself, as well as the group’s dynamic, Chang explained. This can also help you demonstrate a better understanding of the lab when you reach out to a PI to express interest.
Lastly, if you are applying for a summer fellowship or any other funding grant, it is important to say so in the email. This way, the PI is aware of your plans and will be able to determine funding logistics, according to Chang.
For summer fellowships, Jessica Liu ’25 recommends the First-Year Summer Research Fellowship in the Sciences and Engineering.
“The first-year summer research fellowship is a fantastic way to get started doing research right from your first year with your classmates who are also doing research in really different and inspiring areas of STEM,” Liu said. “I am still conducting research in the same lab, and because I’ve dedicated time during the summer, I feel that we’re in a much better position to make progress in the project.”
I’m in a lab — now what?
Once you have joined a lab, start by attending the group meetings, where everyone from undergraduate students to graduate students to postdoctoral fellows will give a brief overview of their progress since the previous meeting. These meetings will help you become familiar with what the group is working on and which project you might like to contribute to in the future, as well as how people in the group work to collaborate with one another.
Another important aspect of being in a lab is communicating with your research mentor.
“Make sure you have a good rapport with [your daily research mentor]; that person will be very important to your success in the lab,” Chang said.
Your daily research mentor will likely be different from your PI. While your PI is one of the leaders of the lab and may not have time to meet regularly with every undergraduate student, a daily research mentor is usually a graduate or postgraduate student who will guide you through your research and be your main source of information about anything lab-related, according to Chang. Depending on the group, either your daily research mentor or your PI — or in some cases, both — will help you in developing summer project proposals.
Can I get paid for summer research?
Yale’s Science and QR department offers myriad fellowships and funding opportunities for students to perform research over the summer, both within and outside of Yale. These include opportunities specifically for first years and students from historically underrepresented groups, as well as a plethora of other options.
“Previous research experience is not necessary to get these fellowships,” Chang said. “Especially for first-year summer fellowships and STARS Summer, we don’t look for anyone with previous research experience.”
Chang and other Yale STEM professors also host a variety of workshops to help students find the right research opportunity, a list of which can be found on the Science and QR website. The next one, “How to Find the ‘Right’ Research Mentor,” will be hosted by Chang on Nov. 8 at 7:00 p.m.
Chang has previously hosted sessions for students in which faculty looking for undergraduates present their research, with time for students to introduce themselves to professors they might be interested to work with. He is planning to host another of these sessions in January 2023, the specifics of which will soon be posted on the Science and QR website.
Dean Chang has breakfast at Silliman on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, where students are welcome to drop by and ask questions.