Student-Faculty Research in the Sciences

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Council on Undergraduate Research

In short, participation in research enriches students' learning experiences, provides improved preparation for graduate school or work, and creates involved citizens to address community problems.

In early May 2009, the Council on Undergraduate Research (CUR) hosted its annual Posters on the Hill, a presentation of some of the best student research from across the country. The 60 students who presented were selected from nearly 500 applicants. Some of the issues students studied were:

  • bone cancer in children and a compound that kills the cancer cells;
  • the use of culturally relevant tools to teach science to Alaskan Native Americans who speak Yup’ik;
  • comparisons of the political art of ancient Rome to Washington, D.C., to determine the cultures’ common attitudes, world-view, and motivations;
  • KeeLoq, the remote locking system for automobiles that is vulnerable, and attempts to find a better algorithm to make the system more secure;
  • an econometric analysis of human trafficking;
  • effects of parent guidance on numeric skills in preschool children; and
  • the history of black women during the NAACP’s early years.

These types of research projects are the reason why organizations such as CUR are passionate believers in the importance of undergraduate research. Involving students in research, when students are working with real questions and confronting real problems, is the best preparation for any profession. Students have found that their educational experience is enriched when they have the opportunity to engage in a process of innovation and discovery through research.

If you are interested in a science or engineering career, you will want to seek out an undergraduate research experience at your campus. Undergraduate research experiences may begin as early as your first year of college. Some schools have an office of undergraduate research, which should be your first stop. If there isn’t an office, you can ask your advisor or other faculty in the department how you can get involved in research.

Often campuses will assist students in developing research skills by involving them in inquiry-based activities and research projects embedded in courses or through a research-rich curriculum. Other campuses may engage first-year students in research activities under the supervision of a faculty member in the laboratory. Sometimes campuses offer a summer research experience prior to beginning your first year of college.

As you become more engaged in your major and experienced with research work, you may want to collaborate with a faculty mentor on his or her research. In the sciences, professors will often involve students in some aspect of their ongoing research. A student may take a small piece of a much larger research project and work on it independently or alongside the faculty mentor. Many upper-level students often have their own questions to pursue and ask professors to serve as advisors.

Professors who are engaged in their own research often have funding from a federal agency such as the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy, or the National Institutes of Health, or even private foundations. In many cases, the funding may also provide stipends for students to assist in the research during the academic year and/or over the summer. There are also opportunities for students to participate in research at a campus other than their own through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates ( crssprgm/reu). These programs are in the summer and usually pay for the students’ room and board, travel expenses, and a small stipend.

Most campuses that offer undergraduate research opportunities also provide chances for students to share the results of their hard work at campus research days or research symposia. Students frequently have opportunities to publish articles about their research with their professors in scholarly journals or undergraduate research journals. They also might be invited to make presentations about their research at professional meetings in their discipline or at undergraduate research conferences.

Participation in research can transform students by deepening their learning, developing self-confidence and a sense of accomplishment, and inciting a passion for science in ways that traditional classroom learning cannot. Beyond that, research can also transform entire departments or a whole campus and give students a feeling of great satisfaction knowing that they are contributing to solving problems in the local community.

Moravian College has included undergraduate students in many research projects through its program called Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR). One SOAR project involves restoration work at a local Superfund site, a site that is placed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priority List because hazardous waste may potentially be affecting local ecosystems or people. The work engages a consortium of faculty and students from five colleges working with the Lehigh Gap Nature Center.

Students involved in research at the Superfund site are engaged in scientific studies and also participate in developing the next set of recommendations for the site’s adaptive management plan. Any recommendations must be discussed with the state and federal agencies (for example, the EPA). Thus, students are also engaged in policy discussions, adding to their interdisciplinary educational experiences. 

Undergraduate research takes on many forms, reflecting the breadth of interest of the students engaging in this work.

Professor Nelson Christensen and his students at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, pour over images of gravitational waves produced in distant places in the solar system. As collaborators on a large, multi-investigator international consortium, Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), they analyze patterns of gravitational radiation to identify black holes, supernova explosions, and binary stars.

Students at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, who are interested in clinical or applied medical fields are encouraged to join clinical research teams comprised of basic and clinical science faculty, medical specialist residents, and clinical physicians, engaging in the full suite of clinical research activities.

Professor Andrea Halpern and her students at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, study cognitive and biological aspects of music perception. Their work has shown how auditory imaging processes and music memory change during human development and aging, and how they change during progressive neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Associate professor Michael Spevey and his students at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, combine traditional mathematics with computer models to evaluate similarities in apparently disparate matrix functions to develop more generalized algebraic functions.

Assistant professor Sherri Morris and her students at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, evaluate how much carbon is present in soils of varying geological and ecological origins and the chemical nature and decomposition characteristics of soil organic carbon, with the ultimate goal of increased understanding of the global carbon budget and finding ways to sequester carbon in terrestrial soil pools.

Students at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, worked with faculty mentors and community stakeholders to develop and implement the College Hill Corridor project, an urban renewal project involving students in urban planning, industrial management and design, and marketing and integrating environmental and management practices with economic and city planning goals.

Participation in research enriches students’ learning experiences, provides improved preparation for graduate school or work, and creates involved citizens to address community problems. The opportunities to participate in research are countless, and students who seek out such experiences will be rewarded with both engaging work and increased career opportunities.

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