'Undergraduate lab syllabus'

This page serves as a description of the goals and requirements of receiving credit (Independent Study or Directed Research) in my lab for undergraduate students. However, note that I expect all the same things from FWS students or paid undergraduate research assistants.

If you are not (yet) working in my lab but you are interested, email me at dornhaus@email.arizona.edu. Independent study credit positions are usually available. The main requirement is enthusiasm and firm commitment of about 10 hours/week; ideally you plan on staying in the lab for 4 semesters or longer. Any hours you put in can only count towards either credit or pay, not both. I usually only pay students who are in the Federal Work Study program, in the UBRP program, or who have been in the lab for at least a year. Pay is also dependent on availability of grant funds.

Learning goals

We want you to have a great experience, learn how science works, what goes on in a university besides teaching, how to conduct a project and finish it to the end, how to work in a team, how to communicate well with both peers and mentors/employers/superiors, and how to stick with something through the boring parts in order to get an exciting result at the end. This may sound like a tall order or it may sound trivial; but all these are all professional skills you will need once you finish your education. 

You will also practice how to present your thoughts and work results to an audience, both in written and oral form: you will give a short talk in our lab meeting, and you will present your work in a poster, once a semester.

Finally, we will also aim to teach you how to use R, a statistics software, to do your own data analysis, how to keep your materials and data organized, how to use good computing habits (e.g. frequent backups), and time management.

It is important to note that working in our lab is not like a class. You will be given advice and information, and also instructed to do things, but essentially the responsibility for achieving all of these goals lies with yourself. We provide the opportunity and resources; we expect you to use them, and to take full advantage of the opportunity to ask questions of both the lab PI (Anna) and the other senior people in the lab (grad students and postdocs).


There is one expectation and requirement of participating in this research experience: you will be expected to become a professional. This means, perhaps contrary to what you expect, that your work is a crucial contribution to a team. Quite literally, the career of the people you are working with depends on you producing reliable, quality work. Also, you are contributing to original scientific research, advancing the frontier of human knowledge. If your results are wrong because of sloppiness or rushing or lack of attention to instructions, erroneous information will enter the body of scientific knowledge and be there for possibly decades or centuries. This is in no way exaggeration; many scientific results are not confirmed by independent studies until many years later. 

This expectation that you only do quality, careful work requires that you use the time allocated to each task. You may think you can 'cram' more work into less time, but we do not want you to do this for good reason. If you do not have the time you committed initially, please talk to me about postponing your work commitment. 10 hours per week, which is what most students sign up for, is a considerable commitment, and I don't recommend a second paid or lab position in parallel if you are also taking a normal load of classes. In general, effective time management is your responsibility; it is also your responsibility to find out exactly what tasks and results are expected of you each week, and to arrange an alternative strategy with your direct mentor whenever you expect that you will not be able to meet the same workload (where live animals are concerned, this is also and especially during breaks or holidays).

The second most important requirement is that you pay very detailed attention to what it is that you are supposed to be doing. You will be discussing with me or your specific project advisor exactly how your research will work; you are welcome and expected to make this a two-way discussion. BUT: once something has been decided and agreed on, you must stick to that plan, and you are responsible for understanding what that plan is. If you don't understand what you should do, or encounter situations that you feel weren't covered by 'the plan', you must let us know and ask questions.

We expect you to read our emails carefully and act on them. We also expect you to respond to emails within a week; if it is a group email, no response may be required, but if an email goes specifically to you, always respond at least with a confirmation. In turn, we will try to answer any email within a week as well. Do not communicate by text message unless there is an out-of-hours emergency.

Noone else is responsible for cleaning up after you. Please make sure all materials you have used are properly stored and put away, and tools are used carefully and tidied up. Close doors and switch off lights when you leave. Rinse and scrub the sink and clean your dishes and flasks when you have used them. Thoroughly rinse any brushes used for fluon. When your experiment is completed, clean up and store all nest boxes and other materials.

Lab meeting

You are required to attend lab meeting once a week. This will help you really understand the background to your own project, you will get more detailed feedback on and help for your project, and it also helps towards the stated goals above: learning how science works (from other projects) and having a better experience because you get to know your fellow labmates better.

Presenting a poster

The best way to make a poster is to seriously and carefully look at a lot of examples, and write down specifically what you like or don't like about them: then follow your own advice. Fully read the page on posters. You can also find a lot of advice on how to make good research posters elsewhere: e.g. 'Ten simple rules for a good poster presentation'.

Presenting your research in a poster, even at a student-centered poster session on campus, counts as a small way of publishing your research. Publishing your research can only happen with the consent of all the coauthors. Which means you MUST have approval from both myself and your more immediate project mentor, as well as each other person whom you may have as a coauthor on the poster. Approval is approval of the final version, not a general agreement that it would be a good idea to present. Not getting this approval is considered a type of scientific fraud, and if this were a journal paper, could lead to post-hoc retraction of the paper and a significantly tarnished reputation for all involved. 

In addition, you must realize that your project is a collaborative endeavor, and everyone who is a coauthor is responsible for the scientific quality of your data and the rigor of the results. People looking at your poster know this, and will connect everything you say not just with you but with me and your project mentor as well. Thus, by presenting bad data or conclusions you are potentially destroying, or at least harming, the career of the graduate student or postdoc you are working with (since other scientists will judge them and not just you based on your poster). So PLEASE realize that while for you this may be a small matter, for me and the graduate students/postdocs in the lab it is crucial that you get approval BEFORE you print, and that you allow enough time to get such approval (not just 24 hours).

If you get invited for additional poster sessions, you must get all these approvals again separately.

Where could you present your research (any of you can present at any or all of these) is listed below. Many of these offer prizes for best poster etc.

- UA Homecoming student showcase

- UBRP conference

- EEB Poster session

- BECUR conference

- Other department poster sessions

- A national or international scientific conference (if you need funding to go, talk to me; if you have good results, I am usually able to pay for your attendance & travel, plus there are often travel grants available for students)

Prepare yourself

Read this website carefully: not just this page but other pages, e.g. 'Do research', 'Lab meeting presentations', 'getting a recommendation letter'.

Read each of my emails carefully, and archive all the ones that contain links or other important information you might need later, such as attachments. Do not expect that you can always ask for the same information again: that is disrespectful and wastes time.

Read any scientific papers that your mentor sends you, or if you have not received any ask for them.

If you follow all the advice and instructions on this page, you will not only be successful in the above-mentioned learning goals, you will also have secured several excellent professional contacts and a great recommendation letter. You will also have contributed in crucial ways to original scientific research, and you will have practiced several skills that you will use again and again in your professional life.

When things go wrong

The key to successful working relationships is clear and timely communication.

If you are unsure of what you are supposed to be doing, how the method is supposed to work, or what to do about the fact that the experiment seems to do something different than what you expected, ask your project mentor. E.g. if the bees aren't doing the things you were supposed to record but something else that seems significant, or if they aren't coming out in the first place, etc. Or if you aren't sure any more whether a particular behavior 'counts' as brood care, etc. In all of these cases please ask your project mentor directly (by email or in person) about what to do next. Even if you are sure that you should know the answer but don't.

If you cannot come in at the time(s) you previously agreed, tell your project mentor immediately so they can, if necessary, arrange for someone else to be there. Don't assume that it won't matter. This is not about having a good excuse; do it even if you don't, simply so that the experiment is not jeopardized.

If you realize at any point that you've overcommitted yourself, and you can't sustainably keep up the number of hours per week you agreed upon early in the semester, talk to Anna as soon as you can. The main solution is to take an 'incomplete' grade for that semester; if you make up the missing hours at a later point this will be changed to a regular grade with no negative consequences. Another solution is to work less for some weeks and to make up for it by working more other weeks. Either way you should discuss it as soon as possible with both your project mentor and Anna (who is responsible for grading).

If you realize that your project mentor or your research project is not the best fit for you, doesn't seem to work out, or isn't what you had expected, arrange a meeting with Anna to discuss it. Students switch projects (and mentors) every so often and this is usually not a problem.

In general, working in the lab is a bit like working in a paid job (even if you are not paid), and not really much like a class. Not only because others depend on you doing your part, but also because we expect you to be fairly proactive. You should make sure you meet regularly (about once a week) with your project mentor. You should make sure you get the information that was given in lab meeting if you come late or miss it. You should keep a calendar and a notebook in which you write down deadlines, references, and other resources that are recommended to you, so you don't have to ask the same information again. Don't assume you will be reminded by someone else. If you follow all the points on this page, it is unlikely you will get anything other than an A for your credits.

If your project mentor finds that you are not completing the weekly work as agreed for two weeks in a row, we will try to talk with you to find out what is going on and how we can help you become more effective. If you simply cannot invest the time as planned, we will arrange a new schedule and an 'incomplete' grade for this semester. However, if you consistently fail to meet goals, fail to respond to our communication, or miss deadlines (such as for the poster draft), this will have negative impact on your grade (and remember that you cannot 're-take' this course number for a better grade).


Actual research work can be dull and sometimes frustrating. But, at the same time, few things you will do in life will have as long-lasting impact: any actual research results that get published will be forever part of our civilization, and will have pushed the boundaries of human knowledge ever so slightly outward (see illustration on this by Matt Might). There is also a lot of beauty in discovering how intricate and complex the workings of even tiny biological living organisms can be. By working in a research lab you can be part of this: you may not be used to the frustrations and the long reward cycle (it will take a long time, often years, to see your results published), but you will see and get to know the real process, and the real people that are making these discoveries and doing science.