Let us say that you have some interest and curiosity for science, and want to actually do a little research work in a laboratory, just to see what this is like. You are wondering, how can I do that? One of the best opportunities for students in high school or college is to join a research project run by your science teachers. For others, since you have no training or previous experience, there is almost no way you can work in a lab for pay; thus, your question becomes, can I work in a lab as a volunteer? This article will explain why your quest for a volunteer position is generally very difficult, and discusses alternatives which are much more doable.
What work could a volunteer do in a research lab?
Scientific research is a practical activity and is very specialized. Since you have no training or previous experience, you cannot do much in a lab. Research demands that operations be done accurately and completely in a specified manner; even learning how to clean research glassware according to the lab protocol is quite different from washing the dishes at home. In addition, I am guessing that cleaning lab glassware probably is not what you are looking to do as a volunteer.
To aid your understanding about volunteering, let’s look at the analogy of building houses. Assume you have curiosity and interest in that, so you are seeking to be a volunteer at orker for a local construction company. The foreman will ask you what construction work you have done before; your honest reply will be “none”. After you state that you do know how to hammer nails into wooden planks, the foreman then will ask you questions about details: what kind and what size nails are used for the frame or for panels, have you ever used a power nail driver, and, do you also know how to install doors and windows? After your negative answers, it is obvious that you cannot do anything in construction until you have received much instruction. Doing research in a science lab is very similar, and cannot be done without specialized training and experience!
One exception to the above is researching in the field, where serious volunteers might be used where a large group of workers is needed (e.g., for research projects involving agriculture, archeology, botany, environmental chemistry, microbiology, mineralogy, zoology, etc.). Volunteer activity can be done during your vacation time or even during the entire Summer.
Are there any alternatives? What could I do instead of being a volunteer?
I suspect that what you really are looking for is to spend a few hours or days as a visitor observing lab staff running experiments, analyzing data, operating research instruments, meeting with the lab director, observing participants in journal clubs, etc. This brief watching activity should satisfy most general curiosity about science labs. If you are trying to decide whether you want to become a research tech or a graduate student in science, briefly watching will tell you much about what goes on in a research lab, and will help you decide what to do next.
Visiting a research lab requires that you find a professor in a university or a group research leader in industry, and gain their approval. First and foremost, you will need to explain exactly what you are after and why. Secondly, leave the question of time up to your host or hostess; one or 2 half days in a single week should be quite sufficient. From my own background, I believe many professional researchers would be pleased to provide this opportunity to serious visitors!
How can I find out what possibilities are available?
It is up to you to make personal inquiries to find where you might be a visitor! Don’t hesitate to ask your science teachers, parents, and friends for help in deciding who to approach about visiting. First, find out what local industries, universities, and hospitals have active research projects. Then, see if you know anyone working there, and talk to them about what might be available; if you don’t know anyone, make an appointment to see a departmental chair or the director of an industrial research group to ask what could be available for you. When you find someone suitable, make an appointment to explain to them what you are after and why; you must prepare carefully for this interaction (i.e., know everything about their research work, reveal your own interests and future hopes, etc.). Even by itself, talking to any professional scientist almost always is an eye-opening experience for most people!
Are there any organized programs that could give me a taste of research work?
Quite a few universities and colleges offer “Science Exhibition Day” for the public. There, all can learn about their active research projects, see many exhibits about research, attend lecture presentations and demonstrations, and, meet science workers. Attending one or 2 of these should greatly help you find a suitable scientist to contact about visiting their lab. In addition, various Science Fairs take place every year; these illustrate how beginners can do good research, and might be useful in your search for which lab to visit.
The major question almost everyone will ask you is why you want to volunteer or visit a research lab instead of going to graduate school? In my view, most people who strongly need to get a sample of real research should consider enrolling in a community college or graduate school for an associate’s or master’s degree program in science. There, you will get a good background, learn some hands-on skills with using research instruments, and conduct research in an actual project. Probably you should expect to use 1-2 years for that degree; if this is not good for you, then simply withdraw.
New kinds of opportunities to actually work in research projects!
Some research projects seeking crowd-funding give donors new opportunities to participate in various aspects of these investigations. Check out the experiences of participants for crowd-funding described at internet websites; just ask your browser for “crowd funding for science”.
Another modern possibility arises if you are really good with computers and software. That expertise provides an opportunity for employment with piecework, since those skills could be useful for some research scientists with large labs. By finding such work, you also will get to observe a lot about the daily research activities in that lab.
Give it a try and good luck to all!
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