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Getting Research Done

It happens frequently. In conversation with a colleague from a research university, I describe my six-course teaching load and a laboratory staffed only with undergraduate students: no technicians, no grad students, and no postdocs. My colleague looks at me like I'm either crazy or superhuman. Or both.

I am neither. After 6 years of teaching and doing research at Bates College, a small liberal arts college in southern Maine, I have found that it is possible to do interesting research under conditions that many big-university scientists would consider unmanageable. It requires neither insanity nor divine intervention; the trick, if there is one, is to work hard and strategically--to know which corners to cut and which corners to slow down for. Here are some strategies that have helped to keep me on track:

Protect your research time. Teaching will always demand more time than you can give it. Don't give in to those demands. Put a limit on the time you spend preparing for class and anguishing over tomorrow's--worse, yesterday's--lecture; the best way to improve as a teacher is to stay relaxed and pay attention while you're in the classroom. Also, avoid service work. Making your lab productive needs to be your first and highest professional priority.

Design student projects carefully. I am most successful when I have a big vision that I carve up into small projects, each of which has a story line: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if a project doesn't work, students appreciate the opportunity to do experiments whose significance they can understand. Students get frustrated and lose focus if they spend their senior year preparing for the key experiment they sense they'll never get to. Projects should be comprehensible to undergraduates; students don't need to understand every detail, but they do need to know what drives the work and how it relates to what they do in lab each day. Finally, many students are inspired by projects that apply or connect to an aspect of the world they care about--environmental or biological angles appeal to many students these days. The distinction is an important one: The difference in both the quantity and quality of work between an inspired and an uninspired undergraduate can make the difference between publishing and not publishing.

Collaborate. My students and I get a tremendous boost from our interactions with colleagues at research institutions. Undergraduate students learn a lot from the occasional opportunity to work side by side with graduate students and postdocs. Outside contact keeps the research vital and rapidly increases the sophistication of young students.

Stay plugged in. At a small school you have to work harder to remain a member of the community of scientists. Develop and utilize a network of colleagues. Call them and discuss your ideas. Share papers and grants before submitting them. Go to meetings and present papers and posters. Working with undergraduates, even very good ones, sometimes feels like babysitting. You need a network of colleagues to make up for the stimulation postdocs and advanced students provide for your peers at research universities. Watching students emerge into thoughtful, independent scientists is rewarding, but, like a stay-at-home parent, you need adult companionship to get you through the day.

Make your expectations clear. When students join my lab, I give them a document that states how many hours per week I expect them to work in the lab. Each student sets a weekly work schedule and reschedules ahead of time when conflicts arise. I set deadlines for drafts of each thesis section, and I make it clear that I expect students to read and write outside the lab: Lab time is for lab work. It is easy for other activities to crowd the lives of undergraduate students, but when my expectations are clear my students usually keep their commitments, and we all feel good about the work in the end.

Look for ways to save time. For example, if a chemical is commercially available and affordable, buy it.

Be your own postdoc. Every week I try to spend at least a couple of hours at the bench, and I rely on my own efforts to push projects forward when they get stuck.

Be patient. Don't get discouraged. Work steadily. Research will go slowly, but if you plan well it will progress.

I love my research, so I'm always looking for an opportunity to do more of it. Bedtime, for me, is for reading journals. If a canceled appointment frees up a few minutes in the middle of the day, I run into the lab to set up an experiment. I don't view research as a means to an end (i.e., tenure); I work hard because I enjoy the routine, moment-to-moment challenges of every workday.

* Rachel Narehood Austin is finishing her 6th year as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Program in Environmental Studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Since arriving at Bates, she has authored or co-authored six research papers and eight successful proposals for research and instrumentation grants. This spring she received Bates College's Kroepsch Award for Excellence in Teaching after being nominated by her research students. Austin also mentors a son, Jacob, who is 3. She welcomes your comments; you can contact her via e-mail at

Rachel Narehood Austin

Rachel Narehood Austin is a professor of chemistry at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Her interest is in understanding the mechanisms of metalloenzymes, especially those important in the global cycling of elements. Currently she has research support from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy. She was chair (with co-chair Ariel Anbar) of the 2010 Gordon Research Conference in Environmental Bioinorganic Chemistry. She is a member of the editorial board for the journal . She is a past winner of her college's Kroepsch award for excellence in teaching.

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