VOLUNTEERING IN A LAB
If you are a UTSA undergraduate and desire to perform research, but are not in an organized research training program or the Honors College, it is still possible to do so here on the UTSA campus. In fact,you even earn credit through honors research courses (you no longer have to be in the Honors College to take them), Independent Study courses, or through other internships that may be available in your department.
What you need for any of these mechanisms is a faculty member (often referred to as a PI, or Principal Investigator) who will accept you into his or her laboratory or work group. Here is some advice on how to approach a faculty member to seek a position in his or her lab.
Seeking a Mentor
Use department websites or talk to your course instructors. However, not everyone teaching at UTSA is a faculty member who performs research. People listed as Assistant, Associate, or Full Professors, or as a Department Chair or Endowed Chair usually have a research program. If they are listed as Adjunct or Adjoint Faculty, they might not be performing research on campus. If there is the word "Research" before "Assistant" or "Associate," these are people who perform research but are self-funded through grants; they are not tenure track and often their labs are not as large (size or staff) as the labs of tenure track faculty.
Using web information, determine the types of projects that the UTSA faculty in whom you are interested are doing and select several who are performing research that you think is interesting.
You can approach prospective research mentors directly (in office hours, or after class if you're in one of their classes) or through email. If using email, send two or three of the researchers you selected above, a short email giving a (very) brief run-down of your academic background and credentials. Mention your interest in their research and ask if you may set up an appointment with them to discuss a possible volunteer research position with them. Make sure to send an individual grammatically correct email to each one, and tailor it to their research. After a week, if you get no response, send it again. If no response again...you can either try to track them down in person or move on to another person.
If someone wants to meet with you, look online for papers that they have published; the ones on which they are the first or last author listed tend to be on projects that they directed, rather than collaborations lead by someone else. Pubmed or Googlescholar should pull up their publications. Read at least one recent paper, even if it takes a long time. Look up unusual words on the internet. If it's very long, you might just skim through. You can also put together a CV (a comprehensive "resume" of science). Most undergraduate's CVs are minimal in length, but it will give the professor a source of contact information for you. A CV template can be found here. You can either offer them your CV in paper format, or ask if you can email it to them.
Regarding the actual meeting: ask if they are in a secure hallway or building. If they are, you'll have to bring their phone number so that someone can let you in. Also, don't get offended if they have to cancel (professors are very busy people); just set up another date.
For the meeting: dress normally but be sure to show up on time. The researcher will ask you questions; you should also be prepared to ask them a few questions about their research. What are faculty members looking for in future lab members? The specifics vary with field and by faculty member, but a minimal time commitment is a must; 15 hours/week is good, 10 might work, less is not workable if you want a project of your own. Other factors are listed below. Please keep in mind, you may be invited to attend lab meetings or to participate in the lab for a trial period; you must prove your reliability.
You don't need all of the characteristics below to be an acceptable undergraduate volunteer, but these help:
After your meeting, they may also take you for a tour of the lab (if they have one) or tell you about a project. Sometimes, rather than offering you a position, you may be given something to do (eg. read a paper, etc.) and they will want to meet with you again; this could be a test so make sure that you do what is assigned. It will show that you're very serious about entering the lab.
If you are offered a position and you have a very good feeling about it, go for it. If they say that you can start on a certain day but then don't get back to you, then you need to get back to them and pursue your opportunity. If you are offered a position but are uncertain about a laboratory, thank them very much for the meeting and ask if you may get back to them within a few days. Get back to them. If you do not choose their lab, always remember to send an email thanking them for their time.
For those of you entering a lab, the PowerPoints below may assist you in a getting a strong start.