Department of
Plant Biology

Undergraduate Research


If you are interested in concentrating your studies in the area of Plant Biology, then you must declare Integrative Biology (IB) as your major and develop a course of study that includes all the courses required for an IB major, choosing courses in Plant Biology whenever possible to fulfill the requirements or as electives. See the information on the IB Major at the IB website.

The School of Integrative Biology provides some information about undergraduate research here.

Plant Biology Laboratories Accepting Undergraduate Researchers

Why Pursue Research as an Undergraduate?

We strongly encourage students with (or even without) a career interest in biology to engage in laboratory research during their undergraduate years. Such an experience can serve several purposes:

  • It can help you decide whether or not you are truly interested in - and have the disposition for - a postgraduate career in biological research.
  • It will provide you with an inside view of the day-to-day experimental processes that yield the data that led to the models, theories and dogmas filling the pages of textbooks.
  • It can give you the positive boost that comes from being a part of a collaborative and intellectually challenging enterprise, pursued by a dedicated group of which you will become a working member.
  • The laboratory in which you work can become your "study home away from home", as laboratories are usually relatively quiet environments, conducive to quality studying with minimal distraction.
  • The Principal Investigator (P.I.) of the laboratory in which you work can provide a letter of reference for your future job or graduate school applications that will carry more weight than those from professors who have only known you in the classroom.
  • There are diverse opportunities to present your research results at scientific gatherings on and off campus. Such an experience is invaluable and, needless to say, is a solid addition to one's resume.
  • You can write up your results and apply for graduation with Distinction in the school of IB or MCB, in whichever program you are majoring (you can work in a laboratory outside of your major school or department and still submit a Distinction paper to IB or MCB).
  • With luck and hard work, you can become a co-author on a scientific publication.

What to Expect and What Will be Expected of You

Commitment to a research project in a UIUC laboratory is not a decision to be taken lightly. Know what you're in for before you sign on. Consider the following:

  • You will earn college credit for your time spent in the laboratory, credit hours that could have been earned in electives that your laboratory experience will substitute.
  • You do not, however, sign a contract when you go to work in a lab. If, after a semester or two, you feel the work or the particular laboratory environment is not right for you, you are under no obligation to continue.
  • Reconsider seeking a lab experience if your only purpose is to add it to your resume. Few research supervisors will welcome a student who is not willing to become fully engaged in the research process.
  • You cannot get paid for your laboratory work and receive college credit for it. It's one or the other. If you are looking for paid work, check the UIUC Virtual Job Board. However, you can get paid for Summer lab work (see below).
  • Start your lab experience as early in your undergraduate career as you can. If you enter a laboratory your freshman year, you could know as much about the research there as any graduate student in the lab by the time you graduate. On the other hand, don't expect to get very much out of a laboratory experience that you begin your senior year.
  • Don't feel that you need to have taken all or most of your biology courses before venturing into a laboratory. It's better to start early knowing less than to start too late knowing more.
  • You should expect to spend at least 6 and as much as 12 hours per week in the laboratory. Any less than that, and you and your research supervisor(s) will be unsatisfied.
  • You will be given keys to the laboratory and the building, oftentimes along with the privilege of spending as much time in the laboratory as you want. You are becoming a member of the research group and don't be surprised if your name gets added to the list posted by the laboratory door out in the hallway.
  • At first, you will be more or less a spectator. It takes considerable time to gain a working knowledge of the biology of the system under study, the questions being pursued by the particular laboratory group you have joined, the experimental techniques applied to obtain the data and the procedures, statistical or otherwise, used to analyze the data.
  • Don't be offended if you are assigned "grunt work": washing dishes, photocopying articles or organizing drawers or a freezer, for example. Everybody starts at the bottom. It's not a rite of initiation. It's just the way the system works and you'd be surprised at how much you'll learn doing such chores.
  • You may be asked to 'shadow' a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow. That is, you will watch what they're doing, learn as they explain it to you and ask them questions to fully understand the work in progress.
  • You will be expected to keep regular hours in the laboratory. If you are helping a graduate student or postdoc with experiments, they will be counting on you to be present at agreed-upon times. Take your commitment seriously.
  • You will be expected to keep a laboratory notebook. Write everything down. Keep it organized. Without the documentation it will provide you and your supervisors, it's as if you weren't there at all.
  • In time, you will be entrusted with more independent work, perhaps less and less directly connected and supervised by the P.I., graduate students or postdocs, but don't expect to enter this stage in the first semester or even the first year.

The Robert J. Graesser Award for Undergraduate Research in Plant Biology

Thanks to a generous donation from University of Illinois alumnus Robert J. Graesser, an award of $1000 will be made annually to support one undergraduate researcher's activities in a Plant Biology laboratory or field research program. Go here for details about the award and application process.

Getting Paid for Summer Laboratory Work

You can continue your research laboratory experience through the Summer by applying for a stipend from one of several sources that provide such funding. This can be particularly valuable in plant research, where much field work is performed during the growing season here in Illinois, much of which coincides with the Summer portion of the academic calendar, from May to August. You will be required to submit a proposal in which you provide details of the research you expect to perform during the Summer. The faculty member and/or graduate student or postdoc with whom you want to work can help you prepare such a proposal.

Below is a partial listing of sources of funding for Summer research by undergraduates.

  • Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP). "The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign offers a summer program that provides undergraduate students from populations underrepresented in graduate study at Illinois with an opportunity to explore careers in research. The program at Illinois provides each student with an experience that will help strengthen his or her knowledge, skills, and understanding of graduate school. The many activities offered through the Summer Research Opportunities Program will afford participants an opportunity to establish important relationships with faculty in their respective fields of study, conduct graduate-level research under the supervision of a University of Illinois renowned faculty member, become acquainted with the culture of graduate school, and to learn what is needed and expected of them as graduate students in their discipline at the University of Illinois."
  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), sponsored by the American Society of Plant Biologists. From the ASPB website: "[A SURF] enables undergraduate students to conduct 10 consecutive weeks of mentored plant biology research during the early part of their college careers. Ideally, SURF applicants apply during their second year of college. Others who are well-qualified will be considered. All students must apply with the expectation that they will present their completed SURF research at [the next ASPB annual meeting]. Students must work with a mentor who is an ASPB member (including new members). Mentor arrangements must be set prior to applying. Successful applicants receive a $4,000 summer stipend, a one-year membership in ASPB, and $700 (to the mentor or institution) for materials. SURF recipients may not accept another source of salary or stipend for this research."
  • Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program. "The Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program is made possible through a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. This grant supports undergraduate students' scholarly activities throughout the academic year and summer. Through this support, the University of Illinois is playing a very important role in diversifying faculty demographics by encouraging undergraduate students to pursue doctoral studies."
  • Finally, if you wish to get paid for research work in the Summer, regardless of whether you have been working in the lab during the Fall/Spring academic year or are newly entering in Summer, you should approach your professor directly and ask if it is possible for you to obtain Summer support off of her or his research grant(s). Some research programs can offer this, but many cannot. You won't know unless you ask. And if such support is not available, then by all means ask your professor what other sources you might tap to cover you during a Summer of laboratory or field research.

How to Find a Laboratory in Which to Work

Many research laboratories on the UIUC campus welcome undergraduate researchers, although few overtly advertise it. Your best sources of information about such labs are among the following:

  1. Talk to professors or TAs in your biology courses. Either can give you information about which laboratories might be accepting undergraduate researchers, and what kind of work goes on in those laboratories. A TA can sometimes provide candid information about the particular environment and personalities in various lab groups, information that is unlikely to be available from other sources.
  2. Surf the web. Scan through the list of faculty in the department and read descriptions there of the various laboratories' research programs.
  3. Consult the SIB or MCB advising offices, in person or via their websites, for information they have regarding laboratories currently accepting undergraduate researchers.
  4. Once you have identified a few laboratories that sound interesting to you, email the professor in charge, asking (a) if she/he is accepting undergraduate researchers at this time (if not now, then in the future?) and, if so (b) can you make an appointment to meet and discuss your working in the lab. Don't feel pressured to say "yes" to the first opening available. Make your decision after appropriate consideration of your options and prospects.

Graduation with Distinction

A valuable benefit of your participation in laboratory research is the opportunity it affords you to graduate "with Distinction". Distinction is awarded at three levels, Distinction, High Distinction and Highest Distinction, these designations and additional awards (some monetary) being determined by the School committee (SIB or MCB) that reads and evaluates the Distinction papers submitted by graduating students. See the Distinction Requirements for SIB and MCB for details.