In praise of Undergraduates
One of the highlights of my year is our summer program of undergraduate projects in the Centre. We’ve done this for six years and each student spends 8-10 weeks working on projects in Molecular Informatics. I have been astonished and delighted by what the students have been able to achieve and the lasting legacy they have left and are continuing to leave. I’m leaving out names and will speak in general terms. The students are usually sponsored by an external organisation and we have built up good relations with quite a number – such as publishers and pharma companies. Some students are also supported by the Department, and some by Unilever. We advertise by word of mouth and by the subject email lists. In general the number of positions has roughly matched the number of applicants – this year we have four projects which are all filled and I hope to talk more about them in this blog. Oscar - our chemical text- and data-mining/processing facility sprang from summer projects (support from Royal Society of Chemistry and Nature Publishing Group). I am consistently delighted with the standard of the Oscar summer software – the Experimental Data Checker has run for nearly 5 years without needing any software support. CrystalEye sprang from a summer project sponsored by the International Union of Crystallography. You might think that 2 months is too little time to do anything useful, and most of the time you would be wrong. It’s not uncommon to start getting useful material in the first week. This is in some part because we would as a large team. Some of us the Centre members hot-desk into the “training area” and we work communally – fixing each others’ probelms and discussing strategy. Most of the students get to present to the sponsors and this has been very useful. One presented over a video link to the US office of the sponsor. And there is a longer-term benefit – 5 of the students are now doing – or have just finished – PhDs with us. That has been an enormous benefit to the knowledge, expertise and culture of the Centre. In more general terms, when anyone asks me how they are going to adjust to the rapid changes in modern thinking I advise them to include undergraduates in their team. If you are in the Library sector you have to understand how students think and act and the only way to do this is to work alongside them. You’ll find that long-held views about metadata, bibliographies, customised databases, and the linear reading of articles no longer hold. The e-generation works differently. And it’s often us who have to be educated. I’m not involved in formal undergraduate education here (I have done some demonstrating) but if I were I would turn the system on its head and involve the students in preparing and delivering course material. They are oretty good at finding it, after all.