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Finding an Undergraduate Research Opportunity

Research Institutes and Centers

Columbia University hosts many research institutes and centers, through which much of the globally renowned work of the faculty and other researchers takes place. If you are interested in learning about the range of research undertaken at Columbia and identifying areas of research that are of particular interest to you, review the full list here.

Some institutes and centers provide research opportunities specifically for undergraduates:

Earth Institute
Harriman Institute
Institute for Latin American Studies
Middle East Institute
Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life
Institute for Social and Economic Research and Policy
South Asia Institute
Center for Urban Research and Policy
Weatherhead East Asian Institute

Science Research

There are many research opportunities for science students – whether you are just starting to explore your interest in science research or have already been involved in research here at Columbia or elsewhere. Many Columbia College students volunteer in laboratories, others receive fellowship funds for summer research projects, and some are paid for their work in faculty laboratories. The options available to you will depend on your research interests, your experience, and your commitment to developing a research profile.

Dr. Vesna Gasperov serves as a special adviser to Columbia College students looking for a science research experience. Contact her at vg2231@columbia.edu to learn more about available opportunities and what you can expect from a research experience.

Applying to Volunteer in a Laboratory

Faculty and research scientists are always keen to have undergraduates in their laboratories, because this is another way in which they can teach students about their work and encourage the next generation of scientists. But it will be up to you to create opportunities for yourself.

Application Tips

Securing a volunteer role in a laboratory is typically the best way to build laboratory experience, develop your intellectual interests, and connect with a scholarly community that shares your interests.

First, identify how many hours a week you can commit to. If you have not done research before, 5 hours per week is a reasonable commitment.Then, identify which laboratory/laboratories you would like to work in. You can do this by talking with the Director of Undergraduate Studies for the department and/or reviewing the faculty research pages of the relevant departmental web site.Email the member of faculty/research scientist to introduce yourself, explain that you are interested in the work of his/her laboratory and the possibility of volunteering. Attach a brief description of your background. This should not be a resume, instead an overview of relevant information:

  • Name
  • School
  • Class standing
  • Major, if you have declared one or if you know which one you will be declaring
  • Science classes you have taken here at Columbia, and the grades you earned
  • Previous laboratory experience, if you have any – where you worked, what you did, and for how long
  • Your availability – how many hours per week, what day(s) of the week
  • Your goal in gaining research experience in this laboratory.

There are a number of possible responses:

1. ‘Slow’ response

You will be eager for a response and anything other than immediate might feel slow. But it’s highly unlikely you will get an immediate response and it is important to recognize that other people’s timeframe is rarely the same as yours. If you have not heard back after one week, it is reasonable to call to ask if the faculty member/research scientist has had a chance to review your request. It might be that you get a voicemail message – if so, leave a brief message confirming your name, your hope to be able to volunteer in the laboratory, and that you will resend your original email in the event that it had not been received. Then resend your email.

If you hear nothing after another week, it may be that you will not be able to work in this laboratory. But not necessarily – it may simply be that the scientist is extremely busy and will respond another time. But it is nonetheless reasonable for you to explore alternative laboratories and opportunities at this time.

If you remain interested in this first laboratory, try again next semester.

2. Negative response

You may get a response – immediate or otherwise – that is negative. This could be for a number of reasons: for example, there may be enough people working in the laboratory or no capacity at this time to train a novice – that is to say, it may have nothing to do with you and you should not take it personally. Simply identify another laboratory to approach.

3. Maybe

A third possible outcome of approaching a research scientist is that you are invited to come to the laboratory to talk about your interests and goals. This is an opportunity for the scientist to learn more about you and for you to learn more about the laboratory – and whether or not you are a good fit for each other.

To effectively prepare for this meeting:

  • You should review your understanding of, and questions about, the research conducted in the laboratory. You will not be expected to understand all that goes on in the laboratory but you should be able to demonstrate a grasp of the basic science underpinning the research and an ability to ask questions about the work.
  • Be prepared to talk a little about your prior laboratory experience, if you have any: the nature of the experiment, the techniques used, and the results
  • Dress nicely but casually. It is important that you are presentable but not so dressed-up you give the impression of not willing to get directly involved in the messy work of laboratories.

If you are successful in securing a volunteer laboratory position, set for yourself appropriate expectations of the work you will be involved in. Students with little or no prior laboratory experience are typically in a laboratory for 5-10 hours per week undertaking routine maintenance work. With experience may come the opportunity for an independent project and this might require you to commit to 10-15 hours per week. You should always think carefully before committing to work in a laboratory to be sure that you can manage the work in addition to your classes, which should remain your priority while a Columbia College student.

In addition to being intellectually curious and a hard worker, you will need perseverance to secure an opportunity to volunteer in a laboratory. But if you have further questions about the process, you can refer them to the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the relevant department or Hazel May, Senior Associate Dean of Academic Planning and Administration for Columbia College.

Laboratory Safety Training

Laboratory Safety Training is required of all students prior to the start of their laboratory work, whether students conduct research for financial recompense, academic credit, or solely the intellectual experience. Students should discuss training requirements with faculty mentors and can read more about the safety program and training schedule at: ehs.columbia.edu/Training.html.

Questions may be addressed to the Department of Environmental Health and Safety: 212-854-8749.

Morningside Campus Opportunities

Astronomy and Astrophysics

Faculty in the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics undertake research in a broad range of theoretical and experimental sub-fields – such as stars and stellar evolution; gamma-ray sources; pulsars, neutron stars, and supernovae; active galactic nuclei; surveys; planetary science; galaxies; and large scale structure and cosmology – as well as building the instruments necessary for astronomical work. A relatively small department, undergraduates receive a lot of attention and are well-integrated into the work of the department - by joining laboratories and research groups, and participating in weekly seminars,  pizza lunches, and journal discussion club as well as daily morning coffee.

If you are interested in learning about research opportunities in the Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, contact Professor Mary Putman, Director of Undergraduate Studies.

Biological Sciences

Faculty research in the Department of Biological Sciences spans many fields, including cell and molecular biology; developmental biology; neurobiology; structural biology and molecular biophysics; and systems and computational biology, and in so doing also spans other departments and disciplines. The department has strong connections with the Chemistry and Psychology departments as well as Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.

If you are interested in learning about research opportunities in the Biological Sciences Department, you should first read the guide for getting started which identifies the different ways in which undergraduates can undertake research.

More specifically, the Department recommends that students interested in getting involved in research for the first time should register for the ‘First Year Seminar in Modern Biology’ (BIOL C2908) which provides an introduction to the work of many different researchers throughout the University. This will give you an excellent overview of a range of research areas and help you identify which ones are of particular interest to you.

Academic Year Research

If you are interested in conducting research for academic credit, the department recommends that you register for 'Individual Topics' (BIOL W3500). Specifically structured to enable undergraduates develop research experience, this opportunity will help you connect with faculty and develop your research interests.

Highly recommended for any undergraduate biological sciences researcher, and a co-requisite to ‘Individual Topics’, is 'Building Research Skills' (BIOL W3600). This course will expose you to ongoing questions regarding how research is conducted and communicated.

Summer Research

The Department hosts an extensive summer research program, providing funds to undergraduate students so that they can devote their time to research. You may be able to apply for one of the following summer research fellowships: SURFAmgen, and NYSTEM.

To learn more about these programs, contact Dr. Alice Heicklen.

In addition, the Department provides an overview of other summer research internships throughout the region and the country to which you may be eligible to apply.

Chemistry

Interdisciplinary research is the hallmark of the Department of Chemistry, which includes biological chemistry; chemical physics; environmental chemistry; inorganic chemistry; organic chemistry; materials chemistry; physical chemistry; and theoretical chemistry. The department works closely with its undergraduates, both in the classroom and in the research laboratory. Undergraduates carry out faculty-sponsored research in all the laboratories, participate in the weekly department seminar, and have their very own organization, The Chandler Society, that sponsors lectures, workshops, and other activities. 

If you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in the Chemistry Department, contact Dr. Vesna Gasperov.

Computer Science

Faculty in the Department of Computer Science research in a range of sub-fields, including vision and computer graphics, computer and network security, networks, machine learning, computer architecture and natural language processing.  The department offers majors in both Computer Science and Information Science and works with College and SEAS students. There is a vibrant research culture and the department encourages its undergraduates to participate in ongoing research both during the academic year and in the summer.

If you are interested in undertaking research for academic credit, you should review the department’s listing of for-credit opportunities.  

If you are interested in volunteering in a laboratory, the department maintains a list of volunteer opportunities for students offered by its faculty, research scientists, and graduate students.

Earth and Environmental Sciences

The Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences (DEES) is globally renowned for its contributions to our understanding of how the Earth works. It is part of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, one of the largest earth science research institutes in the country. The National Research Council rated its PhD program as the best in the US. This creates great opportunities for students to explore a wide variety of topics from the deep earth to the surface to the atmosphere, including exploration of the oceans, earthquakes, magma formation and volcanism, history of life, the past, present and future climate, ecology and the environment, the past, present and future climate. DEES has with strong connections with Columbia’ Earth Institute, the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology (E3B), NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and the American Museum of Natural History. 

Undergraduates are encouraged to participate in ongoing research in the department as well as undertake their own independent research and senior theses, as well as apply for summer research opportunities. The Department provides a clear overview of undergraduate research opportunities on its web site.

Academic Year Research

If you are interested in learning more about conducting research in Earth and Environmental Sciences, you should contact one of the two Directors of Undergraduate Studies:

Summer Research

The department offers two summer research internships, in partnership with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the Earth Institute:

  • Lamont Summer Intern Program –faculty and research scientists offer a range of research opportunities typically organized around one theme.

  • Earth Intern Program – faculty and research scientists offer a range of research opportunities.

Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology

Faculty members in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology (E3B) study biological systems from the level of organisms up to ecosytems. With intellectual connections to the departments of Biology and of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the department also maintains research collaborations with other institutions in the city including Columbia’s Earth Institute, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Botanical Garden, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Eco-health Alliance. The academic staff covers areas including ecosystem, community, landscape, behavioral and evolutionary ecology; evolutionary biology; conservation biology and land use change; population genetics, demography and population biology and animal behavior. Many students are interested in policy implications of these areas of biological knowledge as well. Harnessing the expertise of this diverse faculty and the institutions of which they are a part, E3B covers a vast area of inquiry into the evolutionary, genetic, and ecological relationships among all living things. Such breadth and depth of expertise belies the fact that E3B is a relatively small department in which undergraduates benefit from close working relationships with faculty and are encouraged to participate in the ongoing research taking place.

If you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in the department, you should contact either of the two Directors of Undergraduate Studies:

In addition, majors in the department undertake senior theses and the field research is typically supported with departmental funds.

Mathematics

The Department of Mathematics faculty research and teach in the subfields of number theory, algebraic geometry, topology, geometric analysis, probability, and mathematical physics. The faculty are closely connected to undergraduate students – for example, tea is held daily in the department’s lounge, and this is a vital opportunity for students and faculty to discuss all elements of mathematics theory and research. The department also hosts a fully-funded Summer Undergraduate Research Program for Columbia students

If you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in the Mathematics Department, contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies Professor Panagiota Daskalopoulos.

Physics

The faculty in the Department of Physics teach and research in the key subfields of astrophysics, condensed matter physics, high energy nuclear physics, high energy particle physics, and atomic, molecular, and optical physics. Undergraduates are very much encouraged to engage in ongoing research as soon as possible, often in their first year at Columbia.

If you are interested in learning more about research in the Physics Department, you should read the Department’s overview of opportunities for undergraduates and contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Dr. Jeremy Dodd.

Psychology

With connections with the Biology department and the Medical School, the interdisciplinary work of the faculty in the Department of Psychology is wide-ranging.  With a proud history of research excellence, the current faculty pursues cutting-edge, multidisciplinary research in the areas of behavioral neuroscience, cognition, motivation, visual perception, decision-making and social psychology. The many faculty laboratories provide opportunities for undergraduates to fully participate in the research process.  Undergraduates are encouraged to participate in ongoing research in the department as well as undertake independent research under faculty guidance.

If you are interested in learning about research opportunities, you are advised to:

  1. Learn about the current research conducted by faculty in the department.
  2. Read and follow the department’s guide to securing a position in a CU laboratory.

The department also provides a listing of other research positions available here at Columbia and elsewhere.

Statistics

Applying statistical methods to a broad range of fields, the faculty in the Department of Statistics work in social network analysis, neural coding, data mining, statistical genetics, political data analysis, disease epidemic and etiology analyses, financial mathematics, and statistical theory. Undergraduates are very much encouraged to participate in ongoing research in the department and to join the weekly department seminar at which faculty and invited speakers present their work in progress. 

The Department hosts a Undergraduate Summer Internship which provides a research stipend and campus housing for qualified Columbia undergraduates.

If you are interested in learning more about research opportunities in the Statistics Department, contact the Director of Undergraduate Studies, Professor Daniel Rabinowitz.

Medical Center Campus Opportunities

Faculty and researchers at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons are often able to accept undergraduate students into their laboratories to support ongoing research and, where relevant, develop independent research projects.

In order to identify a research opportunity that fits with your areas of interest, you should review the departmental information available here and contact:

Professor Jenni Punt
Associate Dean of Student Research
College of Physicians and Surgeons

Departments: