Opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research in engineering, the applied sciences, and in related fields abound at Harvard. As part of your coursework, or perhaps as part of individual research opportunities working with professors, you will have the chance to take part in or participate in some extraordinary projects covering topics ranging from bioengineering to cryptography to environmental engineering.
Our dedicated undergraduate research facilities and Active Learning Labs also provide opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning. We encourage undergraduates from all relevant concentrations to tackle projects during the academic year and/or over the summer.
Keep in mind, many students also pursue summer research at private companies and labs as well as at government institutions like the National Institutes of Health.
If you have any questions, please contact or stop by the Office of Academic Programs, located in the Science and Engineering Complex, Room 1.101, in Allston.
The SEAS website has a wealth of information on the variety of cross-disciplinary research taking place at SEAS. You can view the concentrations available at SEAS here, as well as the research areas that faculty in these concentrations participate in. Note that many research areas span multiple disciplines; participating in undergraduate research is an excellent way to expand what you learn beyond the content of the courses in your concentration!
To view which specific faculty conduct research in each area, check out the All Research Areas section of the website. You can also find a helpful visualization tool to show you the research interests of all the faculty at SEAS, or you can filter the faculty directory by specific research interests. Many faculty’s directory entry will have a link to their lab’s website, where you can explore the various research projects going on in their lab.
The Centers & Initiatives page shows the many Harvard research centers that SEAS faculty are members of (some based at SEAS, some based in other departments at Harvard).
Beyond the website, there are plenty of research seminars and colloquia happening all year long that you can attend to help you figure out what exactly you are interested in. Keep an eye on the calendar at https://events.seas.harvard.edu!
There are several events that are designed specifically for helping undergraduate students get involved with research at SEAS, such as the Undergraduate Research Open House and Research Lightning Talks. This event runs every fall in early November and is a great opportunity to talk to representatives from research labs all over SEAS. You can find recordings from last year’s Open House on the SEAS Undergraduate Research Canvas site.
Most of our faculty have indicated that curiosity, professionalism, commitment and an open mind are paramount. Good communication skills, in particular those that align with being professional are critical. These skills include communicating early with your mentor if you are going to be late to or miss a meeting, or reaching out for help if you are struggling to figure something out. Good writing skills and math (calculus in particular) are usually helpful, and if you have programming experience that may be a plus for many groups. So try to take your math and programming courses early (first year) including at least one introductory concentration class, as those would also add to your repertoire of useful skills.
Adapted from the Life Sciences Research FAQs
Start by introducing yourself and the purpose of your inquiry (e.g. you’d like to speak about summer research opportunities in their lab). Next, mention specific aspects of their research and state why they interest you (this requires some background research on your part). Your introduction will be stronger if you convey not only some knowledge of the lab’s scientific goals, but also a genuine interest in their research area and technical approaches.
In the next paragraph tell them about yourself, what your goals are and why you want to do research with their group. Describe previous research experience (if you have any). Previous experience is, of course, not required for joining many research groups, but it can be helpful. Many undergraduates have not had much if any previous experience; professors are looking for students who are highly motivated to learn, curious and dependable.
Finally, give a timeline of your expected start date, how many hours per week you can devote during the academic term, as well as your summer plans.
Most faculty will respond to your email if it is clear that you are genuinely interested in their research and have not simply sent out a generic email. If you don’t receive a response within 7-10 days, don’t be afraid to follow up with another email. Faculty are often busy and receive a lot of emails, so be patient.
There are several ways that undergraduate research can be funded at SEAS. The Program for Research in Science and Engineering (PRISE) is a 10-week summer program that provides housing in addition to a stipend for summer research. The Harvard College Research Program (HCRP) is available during the academic year as well as the summer. The Harvard University Center for the Environment (HUCE) has a summer undergraduate research program. The Harvard College Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (URAF) has more information on these, as well as many other programs.
Students that were granted Federal Work Study as part of their financial aid package can use their Work Study award to conduct undergraduate research as well (research positions should note that they are work-study eligible to utilize this funding source).
Research labs may have funding available to pay students directly, though we encourage you to seek out one of the many funding options available above first.
Yes! Some students choose to do research for course credit instead of for a stipend. To do so for a SEAS concentrations, students must enroll in one of the courses below and submit the relevant Project Application Form on the Course’s Canvas Page:
- Applied Mathematics 91r (Supervised Reading and Research)
- Computer Science 91r (Supervised Reading and Research)
- Engineering Sciences 91r (Supervised Reading and Research)
Adapted from the Life Sciences Research FAQs
In general, you should expect to spend a minimum of one semester or one summer working on a project. There are many benefits to spending a longer period of time dedicated to a project. It’s important to have a conversation early with your research PI (“Principal Investigator”, the faculty who runs your research lab or program) to discuss the intended timeline of the first phase of your project, and there will be many additional opportunities to discuss how it could be extended beyond that.
For students who are satisfied with their research experience, remaining in one lab for the duration of their undergraduate careers can have significant benefits. Students who spend two or three years in the same lab often find that they have become fully integrated members of the research group. In addition, the continuity of spending several years in one lab group often allows students to develop a high level of technical expertise that permits them to work on more sophisticated projects and perhaps produce more significant results, which can also lead to a very successful senior thesis or capstone design project.
However, there is not an obligation to commit to a single lab over your time at Harvard, and there are many reasons you may consider a change:
- your academic interests or concentration may have changed and thus the lab project is no longer appropriate
- you would like to study abroad (note that there is no additional cost in tuition for the term-time study abroad and Harvard has many fellowships for summer study abroad programs)
- your mentor may have moved on and there is no one in the lab to direct your project (it is not unusual for a postdoctoral fellow who is co-mentoring student to move as they secure a faculty position elsewhere)
- the project may not be working and the lab hasn’t offered an alternative
- or there may be personal reasons for leaving. It is acceptable to move on
If you do encounter difficulties, but you strongly prefer to remain in the lab, get help. Talk to your PI or research mentor, your faculty advisor or concentration advisor, or reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for advice. The PI may not be aware of the problem and bringing it to their attention may be all that is necessary to resolve it.
Adapted from the Life Sciences Research FAQs
Accepting an undergraduate into a research group and providing training for them is a very resource-intensive proposition for a lab, both in terms of the time commitment required from the lab mentors as well as the cost of laboratory supplies, reagents, computational time, etc. It is incumbent upon students to recognize and respect this investment.
- One way for you to acknowledge the lab’s investment is to show that you appreciate the time that your mentors set aside from their own experiments to teach you. For example, try to be meticulous about letting your mentor know well in advance when you are unable to come to the lab as scheduled, or if you are having a hard time making progress.
- On the other hand, showing up in the lab at a time that is not on your regular schedule and expecting that your mentor will be available to work with you is unrealistic because they may be in the middle of an experiment that cannot be interrupted for several hours.
- In addition to adhering to your lab schedule, show you respect the time that your mentor is devoting to you by putting forth a sincere effort when you are in the lab. This includes turning off your phone, ignoring text messages, avoiding surfing the web and chatting with your friends in the lab etc. You will derive more benefit from a good relationship with your lab both in terms of your achievements in research and future interactions with the PI if you demonstrate a sincere commitment to them.
- There will be “crunch” times, maybe even whole weeks, when you will be unable to work in the lab as many hours as you normally would because of midterms, finals, paper deadlines, illness or school vacations. This is fine and not unusual for students, but remember to let your mentor know in advance when you anticipate absences. Disappearing from the lab for days without communicating with your mentor is not acceptable. Your lab mentor and PI are much more likely to be understanding about schedule changes if you keep the lines of communication open but they may be less charitable if you simply disappear for days or weeks at a time. From our conversations with students, we have learned that maintaining good communication and a strong relationship with the lab mentor and/or PI correlates well with an undergraduate’s satisfaction and success in the laboratory.
- Perhaps the best way for you to demonstrate your appreciation of the lab’s commitment is to approach your project with genuine interest and intellectual curiosity. Regardless of how limited your time in the lab may be, especially for first-years and sophomores, it is crucial to convey a sincere sense of engagement with your project and the lab’s research goals. You want to avoid giving the impression that you are there merely to fulfill a degree requirement or as a prerequisite for a post-graduate program.
There are lots of ways to open a conversation around how to get involved with research.
- For pre-concentrators: Talk to a student who has done research. The Peer Concentration Advisor (PCA) teams for Applied Math, Computer Science and Engineering mention research in their bios and would love to talk about their experience. Each PCA team has a link to Find My PCA which allows you to be matched with a PCA based on an interest area such as research.
- For SEAS concentrators: Start a conversation with your ADUS, DUS, or faculty advisor about faculty that you are interested in working with. If you don’t have a list already, start with faculty whose courses you have taken or faculty in your concentration area. You may also find it helpful to talk with graduate student TFs in your courses about the work they are doing, as well as folks in the Active Learning Labs, as they have supported many students working on research and final thesis projects.
- For all students: Attend a SEAS Research Open House event to be connected with lab representatives that are either graduate students, postdocs, researchers or the PI for the labs. If you can’t attend the event, contact information is also listed on the Undergraduate Research Canvas page for follow-up in the month after the event is hosted.
For any student who feels like they need more support to start the process, please reach out to email@example.com so someone from the SEAS Taskforce for Undergraduate Research can help you explore existing resources on the Undergraduate Research Canvas page. We especially encourage first-generation and students from underrepresented backgrounds to reach out if you have any questions.