YCOSST Student Handbook | AIChE

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YCOSST Student Handbook

The following section of the YCOSST Student Research Handbook was created by 2005 EPA P3 Award Winner & MIT Student, Jacqueline Tio. Students can use this handbook as a guide to planning and implementing sustainability research.

IV. Starting Research

A. Determining your university’s research priorities

The shape, form, and implementation of scientific research at different universities are important factors to consider when beginning your own research.  Some universities are built around conducting research whereas other institutions emphasize education.  The significance of scientific research at these institutions is reflected in the size of the research groups and laboratories that can be comprised of a mix of faculty, professors, undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, technicians, and other researchers.

Research Universities

For research institutions, the infrastructure needed to conduct laboratory research, such as health and safety training, hazardous waste management programs, standard chemical procurement processes, and scientific literature, are already in place.  In these institutions, research is the hallmark of a university’s reputation and oftentimes of its wealth. Most of the resources available for a particular research group are funded through grants and contracts that have narrowly define a research area.  Students looking to join a pre-existing lab, usually must conduct research related to a research group’s pre-existing studies and must gain approval by the research supervisor of a particular group.

Other Universities

Universities that are not research institutions but have research programs are smaller and vary in their organization.  Some universities, for instance, focus on the education of the students rather than the results of an experiment and allow the students to guide the research.

B. Securing Laboratory Resources

Survey Existing Research Groups

Because most scientific research may involve chemicals or methods hazardous to one’s health, several laws and rules must be obeyed in order for a research institution to conduct research.  The first step in securing laboratory resources would, therefore, be to survey the research groups that currently exist in a university or research institution.  Identify the instrumentation, supplies, and laboratory space available in each research group.  If you already have a research topic in mind, try to identify those research groups that more closely relate to it.

Contacting Members of Research Groups

The key to getting started in research is communication.  Once a couple of research groups are defined, you should contact professors, graduate students, or post-docs about a possible research or internship position for you in their laboratory.  More often than not, laboratories in universities that have both undergraduate and graduate students are strongly encouraged to take on undergraduate students.  Undergraduate students may get paid by the supervisor or the school, earn academic credit, or simply research on a voluntary basis.  Students should also talk to other students who have taken part in research to get an idea of their universities atmosphere or to their academic advisors.

C.  Project Development

Intra-campus Communication

Once a research project begins, YCCOST can provide the resources needed to share information among undergraduate researchers.  The YCCOST website will provide a forum to allow for intra-campus advice transfer.

Communication with Faculty

Faculty support is also crucial to the development of your project, as it is the faculty that is most familiar with your research settings and is your closest contact to an experienced researcher.  Ideally, once your research begins you will meet with a mentor or professor at least once a week.  In some cases, this may even occur everyday depending on the nature of your research.  Choose a supervisor and mentor wisely.  Sometimes, graduate students or post-docs may take on undergraduate students to help them finish their own research; in reality, however, undergraduate research should be for the benefit of you and not the graduate student.

Selecting a Relevant Topic

The topic you choose to research may also determine who will become your supervisor and/or mentor.  If you have a specific topic in mind, make sure your supervisor is aware of this.  Ultimately, choose a topic that you are interested in because this project will only progress as far as your own efforts take you.

Working off of Prior Research

If you want to work off prior research at your university, you should first look into the previous work of some of the research groups in your university.  Oftentimes, websites are available to give descriptions of each group’s research.  These groups may have also published papers about their research, and reading these articles may spur additional topic ideas that are more relevant to the research areas already available at your university.  Your school library may already provide electronic access to a multitude of scientific resources.  Some even provide comprehensive scientific literature search databases such as SciFinder, which allows you to search articles by journal citation, subject matter, and even drawn molecules.

Determining a Procedure

Once a mentor and/or faculty supervisor has been determined, make sure there is a set procedure that has already been determined to facilitate your research.  In some institutions, the procedures for undergraduate research are already well-defined.  These procedures define the period of the research, your supervisor, where the research will take place, whether or not the research will be for credit, volunteer, or money, and often include a proposal outlining the research priorities and expected development.  More standard procedures for any researcher include passing chemical, health, and safety training as well as on-site laboratory training.

Setting a Timeline

The timeline should include a both the start of the project and the expected ending date of the project.  If the research is one in which you are unfamiliar with, it is wise to reserve a few of the weeks beforehand for training by your mentor or supervisor.  Moreover, depending on your schedule, make sure to budget your time wisely.  Your schedule as well as your supervisor and/or mentor’s schedule may vary depending on whether or not your schedule begins in the summer, spring, or fall.  Many experiments may require a large block of time, often several hours in a row.  Thus, it is important that you communicate with your mentor in identifying what types of research can fit into the blocks of time that you have available.  Furthermore, professors often advise students to search early for a research opportunity.  When applying for graduate school, having at least two years of experience within one research group looks great on applications and gives you a sound foundation for requesting recommendation letters from your supervisor and/or mentors.

Learning from Mistakes

As an undergraduate researcher, do not be surprised if your research takes weeks or even months to begin showing any signs of progress.  Research experiments can be very demanding and variable—making hallmarks in progress all the more exciting.  Failure represents more than what it may seem.  Learn from your mistakes, re-analyze your experimental setup, and try to find the hidden problems in your research that may be the cause of all your difficulties.  Talk to you mentors, other members in the research group, other students, and even your supervisor.  The beauty of working in a laboratory is that oftentimes you are surrounded by experts.  Indeed, your problem may actually represent a new scientific discovery!


V. Conducting Research

Getting Credit for Research

Undergraduate research can often be used to count for academic credit.   In these instances, your supervisor or mentor will be primarily responsible for determining the level of effort you put in and your corresponding letter grade.  Many students have often found this option as being helpful in boosting academic grades while gaining laboratory experience.

Managing Results

While conducting research, it is vitally important for you to keep a thorough laboratory journal detailing your work and experiments.  If you are working with chemicals that are particularly hazardous, it may be advisable to keep notes in the actual laboratory, and to update the laboratory journal in a safer, cleaner place, such as alcoves outside of the actual laboratory.  Moreover, your notes should be dated and well documented because this will prove to be extremely helpful when you write a report about your results later on.  In research, laboratory journals are also used as evidence for documentation of important scientific observations and are resources for providing proof of discovery or originality.  Therefore, keeping notes should be selective, but rather comprehensive including both successes and failures.

Mentorship in Research

As mentioned earlier, your research experience will in large part be dependent on the quality of your mentor.  Oftentimes, the first few weeks of research involves getting trained by your mentor and learning different laboratory techniques.  Even if you are already familiar with how to set up experiments, etc., adjusting to a new laboratory still necessitates knowing where chemicals, equipment, and safety apparatuses are.  Moreover, some laboratories operate on their own set of rules and protocol which must be followed.  This, for instance, may include keeping updated logbooks on use of equipment, separating certain types of equipment to prevent contamination with other research areas, or even restricting the use of certain computers for information processing.

In addition, your mentor’s laboratory technique may differ from that which you have learned in your own studies or from other research groups.  Therefore, you should under your discretion decide which laboratory technique best suits you and is most appropriate.  Indeed, even the researcher in the space adjacent to you may have a different technique for doing certain experiments, and asking for his or her advice may be wise.

Time Allocation

Finding time for both research work and coursework is challenging, but important.  The difference between a research project in an undergraduate laboratory course versus a research project in a research group is often reflected in the time needed to perform and plan experiments.  An undergraduate research project in a research group should not be more time consuming than that of your mentor or other researchers in the laboratory.  However, it may still require several consecutive hours of your time based on the nature of the experiment.  It is, therefore, necessary for you to communicate fully with your mentor about potential time constraints and to work out a schedule most suitable for you and your mentor and/or supervisor.


VI. Securing Funding

University Funding

Some universities have separate funds already set up to support undergraduate research.  Oftentimes, these programs have applications of their own to fill out, but they can fund a variety of undergraduate research occurring in research laboratories or groups throughout the university.

Supervisor-based Funding

Some research groups may already have funds available to fund for undergraduate research.  In this instance, the research that you choose to do may be used toward the research of your mentor and/or supervisor.  Alternatively, the funding provided by your supervisor may already be specifically designated for supporting undergraduate research.

Applying for Research Grants

Financial support for undergraduate research can be secured through grants, scholarships, or monetary awards for unique research proposals.  A database of these resources is often made available to undergraduates through their university website.  In addition, you should survey the different clubs, organizations, or groups that exist to promote your research area.  Oftentimes, undergraduates can apply for several research grants made available for student research.

Writing a Grant


Managing Grant Money



VII. Attending Conferences

Several scientific conferences are held throughout the year and offer opportunities for undergraduates to share their work and to learn from what other researchers all over the nation are doing.  These conferences are often an excellent resource for networking, meeting other researchers, exploring future career possibilities, and sharing ideas. Conferences include annual meetings held by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Chemical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, etc.


Conferences often have application deadlines well before the actual conference.  The application for attending the conference usually offers a discounted price for students.  Moreover, this process is often separate from that of actually submitting an abstract of one’s work to be presented at the conference or entered into competitions sponsored by the conference.  Be aware of these deadlines, as they often fall several months before the conference.

Poster Preparations

Students attending a conference usually do so to present their work in a student poster session.  During these poster sessions, students stand by their posters and answer any questions that a passerby may have concerning the research.  Some conferences provide a standard platform for the presentation of one’s poster.  Other conferences restrain posters by size and content based sections.  When preparing a poster, be sure to follow the rules stipulated by the conference for the presentation of the poster.  These restrictions are usually critical to the space given to present the poster.  Posters in general should include the title of your research, your name, your mentor and/or supervisor’s name, the name of your university and anyone associated with supporting your research, project goals, a a brief description of your procedures, results, and conclusions.  Most conferences circulate judges to evaluate the posters and award the best posters based on presentation and content.