How to Get Into Research Part 3: Getting Out There

Step 2: Submitting an Application

Some labs will specify what they want in their application, but what all applications boil down to is pretty much this: your transcript (a screenshot of your grade summary off of SSC is fine, no need to pay that fee at Brock Hall), your C.V., and a cover letter.

Most labs require a minimum GPA for you to be an RA (usually 75 % or 80 % and above). If you don’t meet that GPA, you can always try to explain in your cover letter why you might still be an excellent candidate, but please, please don’t photoshop your transcript. You know why.

Unlike what your Planning 10 teacher might have told you in high school, a C.V. is not exactly like a resume. It’s more focused on your academic achievements, and you can get a sense of what I’m talking about by looking up the C.V.s of the PIs you’re thinking of contacting. Yours doesn’t have to be as extensive, though, especially as you don’t yet have your Masters and PhD, ha ha. Stick to the resume rule of being no longer than two pages, and you should be fine. Of course, try to tailor the experience you put on your C.V. to what you think might be relevant for the lab. Previous lab experience is great, but assuming you don’t have that, say, if the lab you’re applying for studies infants and you used to volunteer at a day camp for preschoolers, that’s a legitimate point to note down. At least the PI/lab manager(s) will know that you can interact with people just fine.

Most people forget a cover letter. Don’t! Sure, you can just email a PI/lab manager your transcript and C.V. saying, “Here’s my application, Please consider it. Byyyyeee!!!!”, but why not put in a tad more effort? For your cover letter, you don’t want to write a novel, but you do want to include enough information to convey who you are, what experience you might have that makes you a good candidate, and your reasons for wanting to join the lab. Most PIs should have a website that lists the papers they’ve published. It would be in your best interests to go over some of these papers, or at least the abstracts, and note one or two in your cover letter that you found particularly rad to show that you are actually keen on the research of the lab.

Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get an immediate reply, or even a rejection! I got every response from no replies (this also happened to my friend this summer, so perhaps this is not all that uncommon) to a kind reply about how the PI whose research I was really, really interested in was actually retired (!) and chilling in Papa New Guinea (!!) to a few requests for interviews. In fact, the first interview I was about to have I never got to go to, because later on I learned I needed a lab for PSYC 366, and the lab I wanted to work in couldn’t accommodate. The struggles of applying to be an RA are like the struggles of applying for a job: people get hired when they have past experience in the field, but how are you supposed to get to that point when you have no experience??? My friends, the tough answer is perseverance.

Step 3: Mastering the Interview

Interviews are conducted differently for each lab. Some questions you might be asked are: What are you planning to get out of being an RA? What experience do you have that’s relevant for XYZ, which is a common RA task in this lab? Are you planning to pursue research further after you graduate? My advice? Be honest, and if you really want to be a part of this lab, let your enthusiasm show! In my experience, this is just as much an opportunity for the interviewer to tell you more about the lab as it is for you to convey why you want to be in the lab. Labs need people to run, and it’s best to know from the get-go whether you and the lab are a good fit. Positive feelings have to be mutual.

Step 4: What Next?

There are two kinds of labs; wet labs and dry labs. Think micropipettes for the former and human participants for the latter. As an RA for either of these labs, you’re likely to start out doing administrative work: cleaning, preparing solutions, booking, data entry etc. Take this as an opportunity to explore the workings of your lab a little more, like the people and the research. Once you get a feel for this, if you’re still pretty enthusiastic about what you’re doing, consider asking the PI to take on more work. From my experience, there’s always room for growth as an RA, even if you are just an undergraduate student. I’ve known RAs who’ve taken on actual studies and had their names included in research papers and RAs who have presented in conferences from BC to Texas. If you’re just starting out, consider presenting for UBC undergraduate conferences like LSURC and MURC.

Being an volunteer RA allows you to move onto other positions in the lab that allow you to take on more responsibility. For Psychology/BNS students, you can apply to be a Directed Studies student through your undergraduate advisor. What this involves is taking on your own research project and writing a paper about it, either for one term or the full school year depending on what you and your PI work out. If you want to be more serious about it, consider becoming an Honours student. Conduct wicked science and earn school credit! If you’re more financially inclined, look into becoming a Work Learn student. Get paid to be an RA!

So that’s a wrap! Before I end off this series, I want to say a few things because I can never stop typing, ha ha. (1) It’s never too late or too early to get into research. PIs/lab managers deliberately seek out young RAs (read: first and second year students), because there is potential for these RAs to stick around. If you’re older, that’s not so bad either; you’ve likely accumulated a lot of experience to help you out with the application process. (2) Most labs seek out RAs at the beginning of a term, and some labs even operate over the summer if you want something to do and have less schoolwork to juggle. Keep this in mind when you send off your applications. (3) Some labs are huge and have as many as twenty RAs, and some are small. There are pros and cons to each of these situations. If one lab doesn’t work out because of the people or the research or whatever, you can always try finding another one. (4) You know, I didn’t expect how much I would enjoy being an RA, but it’s really been an eye-opening experience for me. I hope it is for you too if you decide this is what you want to do.

As always, if you have any questions–or even tips of your own, if you’ve been through this–leave a comment! Best of luck!!!


Goodbye, Summer

Taken at UBC at the start of the summer. Can you guess where it is?

This summer has been so different from the other summers I’ve had.

I didn’t enrol in a course this time, which logically makes a lot of sense but is still a point of insecurity for me. I hate the idea that I’m slacking, but I know there are limitations to my abilities to excel in a course and devote my time to other just as important means of gaining experience. (Yeeeaaaah, I’m a course fiend–there, I’ve said it.)

I did some of my usual stuff: volunteered a the hospital, went to festivals, visited the typical cool spots in Vancouver, chilled at the library (ha ha, yeeeeaaaah, I’m that kind of nerd)…

But I also took on a bunch of new responsibilities that challenged me and made me reconsider what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go in the next few weeks, the next few months, maybe even the next few years.

This summer, I interned for an online magazine, I volunteered for some labs and a program that seeks to educate kids in science, I got hired at a bookstore, I went to China for the first time with my family. I met new people, and some of them, as this summer draws to a close, I might never see again.

I also lost a few opportunities taking on too much beforehand, and at times still regret it. I dealt with some devastating news concerning friends and personal health scares. My fears on how I am an utter moron (because yeeeaaaah, I have low self-esteem sometimes) couldn’t be trampled despite everything, and I went through a couple of bad days. I noticed a bitterness in me that came with the sunshine I always pine for come winter, and for once I missed the calm that comes with the rain.

And of course, there was always the occasional lazy day in which I did nothing at all. And that was nice.

It has been a long and eventful four months. I don’t have any epiphanies to share, because now more than ever learning has become a gradual and tumultuous experience for me rather than an earth-shattering “Eureka!” moment (although I wish, heh heh), but I appreciate the challenges that I took on and overcame and even those I’m still in the process of overcoming.

As a student, the start of September is more like New Year’s than actual New Year’s. I am fearful and excited as always for what’s going to come next, wondering how I might be able to sustain this feeling into the school year of trying to be someone worthwhile.

How was your summer, folks, and how do you feel about this upcoming winter session? ????

Refined Ramblings: Poetry to Make You

Today I want to introduce you to a great poet that I know and her poetry. Her name is Alex Nastasa. We came to know each other when we were both students of Science One, but it wasn’t until the summer following that school year, when we happened to both enrol in the same creative writing class, that I realized the extent of sheer awesomeness that I was dealing with. I mean, this girl had brains and confidence and could sing a pretty damn good rendition of your favourite pop song (side note: if you’re into choir, consider joining the UBC C4 Choral Composition Club, which she founded), but now you tell me she’s a brilliant wordsmith too? Dude, some people have it too easy.

After second year, I saw less and less of Alex as our classes never intersected (she’s a Biophysics major with a Creative Writing minor, I study Behavioural Neuroscience and English) and UBC is just too darn huge to have too many coincidental meetings, but I never forgot how amazing it was to be able to read her work that one summer and to talk about books and authors and craft and the purpose of writing, if there was any.

Just last year, though, a friend pointed out that Alex ran a blog, REFINED RAMBLINGS , where she publishes gems such as these:


By Alexandra Nastasa

The human brain fills me with awe. There’s a hint
of lemon and a whole lot of human. I am scared
of the dark
because I do not know it.
I don’t want to think about serial killers
and monsters in the closet
and guns. The thought of going
to space terrifies me. I sleep
like a tranquilized muskrat. I love lilacs
because they smell like cat
pee and comfort. Once, I held someone’s hand;
it was awesome. Someone somewhere
crossed a river, and someone else
died because of it. Never leave the top
off the toothpaste. De ce
nu ai nici un castravete? Never again
will I offer to carry things for whole
groups of other people. Grace is
curling your pinkies in but not
touching the cup.

And obviously my first reaction was to wish I was talented enough to write poetry as beautiful as this and gosh, I was sooooooo jealous, but then I stopped being jealous because as I kept scrolling through all of these lush, gorgeously written poems, all I could feel was: <3 <3 <3. Because for me, those poems were a reminder of what it felt like that summer to rediscover my relationship to writing and, for maybe the first time, what it was like to have friends who also loved to write and read and talk about writing and reading as much as I did. And I was so happy to discover that Alex had never stopped writing for herself, that her writing was more intelligent than ever, and all I wanted was for her to keep writing for a long time so that I could always be inspired by her.

Anyhow, I hope that in sharing Alex’s poems, they inspire you too. Ha ha, I’m such a fan, but seriously, people, check her blog out–and leave a comment if you can! ????


Food, in Excess

Apparently there’s this belief that eating too much turkey will make you sleepy. This may or may not have originated from people noticing that after every Thanksgiving turkey dinner, no one wants to do anything but take a nap. There’s a common misconception that turkey increases tryptophan levels, which facilitates melatonin production in the brain, which in turn brings on the drowsiness.

But if that was the case, my entire diet must consist of turkey (which it doesn’t), because ever since twelfth grade, it has been almost a losing battle trying to combat that food coma once lunch time hits. Do any of you have the same problem? It’s particularly bad during the summer when the heat just invites laziness.

The sleepiness you experience after your Thanksgiving dinner is likely a result of just getting stuffed, especially when your meal is high in carbohydrates. It’s true that tryptophan and its relationship with melatonin will make you drowsy, but the best way to get tryptophan to the brain is not with turkey (which has only a moderate amount of tryptophan). See, tryptophan shares this active transport protein with other amino acids, phenylalanine included, to get to the brain. Eating carbohydrates increases the insulin in your body, and insulin moves phenylalanine into storage so that there’s less competition for tryptophan to do its Sandman business in your noggin.

So there’s your fun fact of the day. Science, people. You got to love it. ????


Kalat, J. W. (2016). Biological psychology: Twelfth edition. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning.