How to gain research experience as an undergraduate

If you are interested in a career in research, or if you want to test out life as a masters/PhD student then the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (UROP) could be for you!

The UROP scheme is specifically designed for University of Reading middle year undergraduates (second years or third years if on a four-year degree) and gives you the opportunity to do a 6-week research internship over the summer. The internships are research projects run by academics at the university and give you a taste of life as a research assistant supporting a real-world research project.

If you are interested in the scheme you can find out more here and if you are currently a middle year undergraduate and want to register your interest in the scheme you can do so here.

The 2020 internships will open for applications in February and we aim to have opportunities available across all schools and research areas at the university.

Don’t just take our word for how great it is being involved in a UROP project, read on below to find out about the experience of Ellie Carter who completed a UROP internship in the summer of 2019.


Development of sustainable and bioactive food packaging materials

— Ellie Carter

When I began the application process for UROP, I had applied for a placement within my own department. I was nervous to look into other departments as I felt I wouldn’t have a strong enough background in anything other than chemistry. I was unsuccessful with that application and I thought nothing more about UROP. A fortnight later, an email came through to say that some placements were still vacant, and one based in the Food Science department came up. I read the title and I was sold immediately.

“Development of sustainable and bioactive food packaging materials”

 

Photo of research notebookI saw that I knew virtually nothing about the supervisor, I had never met her or come across her (food and chemistry rarely overlap except for the corridor connecting the two buildings!). I applied on the Tuesday morning and by the Wednesday afternoon I had been successful in getting the placement. I hadn’t prepared as much for this interview as my previous one, so I decided to try just being myself and being honest about the gaps in my knowledge – microbiology wasn’t something I had ever studied in any depth so I knew this would need a lot of work if I was to be successful. It just so happened that being Ellie and being confident (even when I didn’t feel it) was enough for Nadia to have confidence in me and to give me the opportunity to research with her.

Other than signing contracts and confirming start dates, I continued with life as normal until my exams had finished. I chose to start my placement the week after my last exam, partly as I was just raring to get started and also it meant accommodation cost me less! During the first week of my placement things were very quiet; I was given literature to read to get to grips with the theory and processes we would be using. I had safety talks and lab inductions as I was basically becoming a researcher rather than an undergraduate.

We entered the labs during the second week which initially seemed daunting, but we started very simply. Initially, we prepared liquid media and agar plates to grow our bacterial cultures. Even this seemed exciting to me – I hadn’t used agar since GCSE biology and now I was getting to make up plates of it! In the following weeks we performed antimicrobial tests, developed polymer films and did tonnes of analysis (I have so many spreadsheets and pretty graphs!!). Nadia was an excellent help throughout the weeks in the lab, taking the time to teach me how to do everything and constantly reassuring me that I was doing it right. She also gave me a lot of freedom – after she knew I was capable she left me to perform experiments on my own, take breaks wherever I chose and to come in as and when I needed to in order to complete the research. I was able to input my thoughts and make any necessary amendments to procedures and I felt like an equal in the process, rather than just a student helper.

I also got the brilliant opportunity to work in the CAF lab and perform thermal analysis on my final samples. As a 2nd year the CAF is pretty much-forbidden ground other than for teaching labs in our first term, so getting to work with the technicians and perform analysis myself was really exciting.

My overall experience of UROP has been incredibly positive and I’m so grateful that Nadia chose me to aid her in researching such an important topic. I learnt more than just practical skills and the odd bit of microbiology. I learnt that I am a capable, thorough scientist and that I should have so much more faith in my abilities. I am now excited to begin my 3rd year studying chemistry with bags of confidence and motivation. Maybe I will go on to further this research as a postgraduate – watch this space!

Massive thanks to Nadia for her continued support throughout this process. If it wasn’t for her believing in me from the beginning, I would not have developed into the scientist I now feel I am; I would still be the nervous chemist who shudders at the thought of labs!

Thank you for reading, if you are going into 2nd year (or 3rd year if you’re on a 4-year course), I would highly recommend applying for a UROP placement. It is one of the best ‘jobs’ I’ve ever had.

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