As an undergraduate student in any science you will take some type of laboratory class. You read a procedure, perform some experiments, get data, and write a report. So how close is that to real research? Well the best way to find out is to do undergraduate research yourself! During the semester you might be able to do undergraduate research at your own institution, which is a great experience! I know I had an awesome time doing research during the regular semesters. However, the summer is a chance to do research every day for extended periods of time, not just squeezed in between classes. This will give you a glimpse into what graduate school is all about. So how do you get into a lab for the summer? Well Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs) are a wonderful way to travel somewhere exciting, do research in a lab, and get paid for it!
The National Science Foundation funds many REUs every summer. To help you apply, they have a very convenient listing online. You will be overwhelmed by your choices. Most of the applications are due in about a month, so get started quickly! Remember that even if you are a chemistry major, you shouldn’t look exclusively at the chemistry REUs. An REU is a great time to broaden your experience. I did an REU at the Cornell Center for Materials Research and it was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about chemical engineering and materials science. If your interests are more biological you should take a look at the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems (EBICS) REU offered at MIT, Georgia Tech, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. EBICS students worked in my lab last summer and the program is really great! In addition to programs in the US, there are international REUs where you can spend the summer in China, Austria, or somewhere equally as amazing.
In addition to REUs, a number of chemical companies offer summer internships, so if you want to get the feel for an industrial lab look for these programs. Also, some universities have programs separate from the NSF’s REU program. Many of these programs are call SURFs – Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships. A quick Google search will help you locate these opportunities.
I really can’t praise REU programs enough. You get paid (most programs give a stipend and pay for housing) for an amazing experience, both in terms of the research and the chance to travel to really interesting parts of the US and the world. And remember, if you are applying to grad school, undergraduate research is a necessity, so take advantage of these wonderful programs!
Want more information about REUs from people that have participated in them? Check out the awesome Astrobites article about making the most of your REU.