Undergrads gain critical thinking skills and firsthand research experience in campus labs

Research I institutions, such as the University of Missouri, have undergraduates in labs across campus working on research that could change the world. This unique opportunity has not gone unnoticed by many students.

In Charlotte L. Phillips’ lab, research on Osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) is being done with the aid of undergraduate Emily Harrelson, biochemistry sophomore. OI is a rare, genetic connective tissue disease, better known as brittle bone disease. In the lab, Phillips, professor of biochemistry and child health, works with Harrelson to progress knowledge on how to treat this disease and improve the lives of those who suffer from it.

Harrelson started in the lab in January, 2019, and when she found Phillips’ lab, she knew it was a fit.

“The people were really nice, and the research they were doing was what I was interested in,” Harrelson said.

Harrelson said that she believes working in the lab has helped with her classes too, and she enjoys getting to work with her Principal Investigator (PI).

Phillips also commented on the benefits undergraduates gain from working in research laboratories.

“Research is good for everyone in the sense that it makes you a critical thinker,” Phillips said. “And I think we walk around believing that so much is already known, and until you get into something you don’t realize how much of, even in a textbook, is superficial, how much is really not known.”

And, according to Phillips, the work of undergraduates in her lab is very important to the research.

“They play a big-time role in this,” Phillips said. “Generally, people come into the lab when they’re new undergrads, and they learn about mouse handling skills, and then they also learn about autoclaving dishes and how to genotype.”

But, in her lab, undergraduates work closely with graduate students to find bigger projects for the undergraduates. They refer to this as a figure-in-a-paper project, as it aims to answer a single question. Undergraduates get to claim ownership over this work in any published work that comes from their projects.

In other labs on campus, undergraduates get to work on interesting projects, too. Hugh Knopp is an undergraduate in Lin Randall’s lab as a part of the membrane group. Randall is a professor emerita of biochemistry. Knopp said he is given a lot of freedom while in the lab.

“I’ve had a few projects where I’ve asked my boss if I can spend time exploring the optimizing a process or exploring the limits of a technique,” Knopp said. “I held a three-hour group meeting at the end of the summer about it.”

Knopp, like Harrelson, said the benefits of doing undergraduate research extend beyond the laboratory.

“I learn techniques and concepts at my work before it’s covered in class, so it gives me a leg up on the material,” Knopp said.

But there are commitments that come with doing undergraduate research. There is a lot of time that students devote to their lab. Harrelson herself works in the lab between 10 and 15 hours a week. Phillips said students have other obligations outside of the lab.

“We understand that this is not the most important thing for them,” Phillips said.  “It’s always a balance.”

One sentiment is clear between PIs and undergraduates alike. And that is the teamwork behind new research.

“Science is extremely collaborative,” Knopp said. “I’ve heard from a lot of people that they could never do research because they need human interaction. I cannot emphasize enough how wrong that idea is.”

Phillips shared this sentiment when she described her lab as a team.

“This is like a team,” Phillips said. “There’s more work than one body can do. And when you have a really good working team you look at this paper and there’s six figures, and if two of them were able to be done by undergrads, it’s like a real team project.”

Being able to participate in research while in their undergraduate career has been able to help guide both Harrelson and Knopp in their career choices. Knopp said that he plans to go to medical school while participating in medical research. And Harrelson said that she, too, plans to continue doing research.

Through the opportunities of undergraduate research at Mizzou, students like Harrelson and Knopp have the ability to excel in academics and be career ready for whatever comes next.