September/October 2016 www.acs.org/undergrad • inChemistry
Many professors are both teachers and researchers, and
many can design undergraduate projects related to chemical
education for students who plan to teach. You can also suggest a project topic to one or more faculty members at your
institution. You might be surprised when they are able to find
a connection between your interests and ideas of their own.
They may even want to collaborate with another faculty member to advise you on a cross-disciplinary project.
Keep in mind that some advisors might require that you
complete some prerequisite coursework before starting
research. But this is not always the case; many professors are
willing to develop projects for students who have only completed general chemistry.
When should I do research?
If this is your first time doing research, it may be easiest to
wait until summer break. Independent research comes with a
learning curve — you do not want to put yourself in the position of having to choose between doing research and completing your regular coursework. For a lot of students, summer
break provides many continuous weeks to focus solely on your
project, free from the distractions of the normal school year.
Another advantage of doing research during the summer is
that professors tend to have smaller teaching loads and, there-
fore, they can devote more time to mentoring undergraduate
researchers. Plan to use the last couple of weeks of a project to
write up the results of the project in a concise document, with
the aim of aiding other students who might continue in the
same line of research.
Of course, sometimes curriculum requirements require you
to conduct research during the school year. Alternatively, a great
research opportunity may arise that cannot wait until summer. If possible, you may want to investigate having a reduced
course load if you are conducting research during the school year.
Research during the semester will be a good test of your ability
to juggle multiple responsibilities. This is not unlike the first few
years of chemistry graduate school, where students are required
to start graduate research while taking and/or teaching courses.
How do I prepare to do research?
Plan to spend the first few days (or even a week) of your project
researching the chemical literature on your topic. This ensures
that you are not reinventing the wheel by repeating experiments
that have already been completed by others. Use a good literature search program like SciFinder Scholar®, and don’t be afraid to
search far back in time. Our forebears did some wonderful chemistry in the late 1800s and early 1900s that is often overlooked by
anxious investigators. More than one chemist has been surprised
to find that their “novel” idea was published long ago. Buy a good
notebook, if your research advisor does not provide you with one,
and keep detailed notes on all of the methods and chemicals that
you find in the literature.