Meet the Groups connects undergrads with researchers
Doctoral student Kay McCallum jumped at the chance to play matchmaker in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
The department’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee surveyed faculty, staff and students in the Fall of 2022. The committee wanted to know what needs weren’t being met and what barriers had yet to come down in the department.
Finding an easier, more efficient and equitable way of connecting undergrads with research groups came up over and over again.
Faculty said they were inundated year-round with emails from undergrads asking about research opportunities. Some of those emails were getting buried and lost in inboxes. Meanwhile, undergrads said they didn’t know what opportunities were available or how, when or even if they should approach faculty.
Kay, who earned a bachelor of arts in history and a bachelor of science in chemistry at Macaulay Honors College with Brooklyn College, could relate. Kay wrote a history thesis – “long hours writing in the library” — but struck out on doing a chemistry thesis as well. “There’s a hidden curriculum at universities. If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need support. But if you don’t know, you’re going to miss out on opportunities and get left behind.
“McMaster prides itself on being a top research university,” says Kay. “Welcoming undergrads into research groups is a priority for faculty and graduate students in our department. So if undergrads with lots of potential and an interest in research weren’t connecting with these opportunities then something clearly wasn’t working and needed fixing.”
Kay, who serves on the department’s EDI committee, pitched a Meet the Groups event. It’s modelled after the University of Alberta’s visiting students weekend. As an incoming grad student to U of A, Kay spent Saturday meeting with grad students who represented dozens of research groups. On Sunday, Kay met with U of A faculty. With a double major in history and chemistry, Kay caught the attention of environmental chemist Sarah Styler who has a passion for art conservation. After completing her master’s, Styler landed a coveted postgrad internship as a conservation scientist at London’s Tate Gallery. When Styler was hired at McMaster, McCallum followed her supervisor.
Meet the Groups follows a similar format to U of A’s visiting students weekend. Undergrads first meet with graduate students for informal and PowerPoint-free conversations. Grad students talk about the vibe in their research groups and tell undergrads upfront if there are summer jobs, semester classes and 4th year thesis projects available. If there’s a match, undergrads then meet one-on-one with faculty members the following week to explore opportunities.
This year’s Meet the Groups, held in one of the department’s largest undergraduate chemistry labs in the Arthur Bourns Building, drew 91 undergrads, along with dozens of grad students from 18 research groups. To jumpstart conversations, undergrads got a handout with a list of potential questions to ask. That initial get-together led to just over 100 one-on-one appointments with faculty the following week. All of those appointments were booked by the volunteer committee running Meet the Groups.
Second-year students Sereena Sodhi and Alexandra Mancini were among the undergrads who lined up down the hallway before doors opened at 11:30 am for the 2nd annual Meet the Groups event.
“Every grad student I talked with was so knowledgeable and passionate about their lab groups,” says Sereena. “It really streamlined the process of reaching out to professors and made it a lot less daunting.”
Alexandra agreed. “It was an amazing opportunity. The grad students were incredibly nice and super informative. The Chemistry and Chemical Department does so much for their students by organizing events like this.”
Both students signed up to meet with faculty. Topping their wish list? Joining assistant professor Katherine Bujold’s research group.
So what’s Kay’s advice for other departments and schools interested in running their own Meet the Groups? “Everyone needs to buy in right from the start. Your Chair or Director needs to champion the event. Faculty and grad students need to be thoroughly invested. And undergrads need to show up.”
Keep the event close to home and in a familiar place. “While grad students can leave their research groups to spare a few hours meeting with undergrads, they likely don’t have the time to trek across campus.”
It also helps to have an outstanding core team of volunteers planning, promoting and running the event, says Kay. “In our department, Meet the Groups is an event for students by students, with a ton of support from faculty and admin staff in the Chair’s office. It’s very much a collaborative team effort.”
And order a lot of pizza. “Free food’s guaranteed to draw a crowd every time. Just serve the pizza in a different room so you’re not drowning out conversations between undergrads and grad students.”
Potential questions for undergrads to ask grad students and professors about their research groups
- What are the different research projects going on in your lab right now?
- What projects might be available for summer or thesis students?
- What have past students done after graduating from your lab?
- How would you describe your mentorship style as a PI? What’s your PI mentorship style?
- Does your lab collaborate with other research groups, departments and faculties?
- Are there any presentation or travel opportunities in your lab?
- How would you describe the culture of your group / department?