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Undergraduates in the Research Lab

Faculty at undergraduate institutions share successful strategies and experiences

May 3, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 18

Wenzel (right), a strong proponent of undergraduate research, works with a student at Bates College.
Wenzel (right), a strong proponent of undergraduate research, works with a student at Bates College.

Research experience as an undergraduate is becoming increasingly important for getting into graduate school or landing that first job out of college. But there is concern that not all undergraduate institutions provide adequate research experiences for their students. A summit held last summer and a series of follow-up symposia at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Anaheim, Calif., sponsored by the Division of Chemical Education, addressed the topic with the aim of getting the word out about successful strategies.

Last summer's undergraduate research summit, organized by chemistry professor Thomas J. Wenzel, was held at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, to discuss the issues surrounding research at undergraduate institutions. The report from the summit has recently become available (

A frequent lament about conducting research at undergraduate institutions is that there's not enough time or money to do a good job. But that doesn't have to be the case.

"One of the virtues of the report is that there are a lot of recommendations that don't require resources to [carry out]," Wenzel said. "They require changes in the way you might think about things or practices your department might [adopt] without spending money."

An important step, Wenzel said, is to develop a "research-supportive curriculum" and involve students in real scientific investigations where the answer is not known at the outset--even in the teaching laboratories.

"You need to create time in the curriculum for undergraduate research," Wenzel said. "You can't just require everything you've always required and just throw research on top of it. Then no one, including the faculty members, may have time to do that research. You've got to recognize the valuable learning that comes from doing it and say it's valuable enough to make time to do it." Wenzel particularly advocates the inclusion of a "capstone" research experience during the senior year.

Predominantly undergraduate institutions (PUIs) face a number of challenges in developing strong research programs. Such schools traditionally require heavy teaching loads of their faculty. In addition, faculty members are often the sole representative of their particular subdiscipline in the department, which can isolate them scientifically. Finally, intensive, concerted research efforts are often only possible during the summer.

DESPITE SUCH CHALLENGES, some schools have long-standing histories of successful undergraduate research programs. Luis E. Martinez, assistant professor at the University of Texas, El Paso (UTEP), described that university's more than 30-year history with undergraduate research. The majority of its faculty members conduct research, and around three-quarters of the chemistry majors participate.

"For faculty, it's important for them to be research active. They bring that excitement, they bring that intellectual curiosity, they bring that love and passion for the science into the classroom by being research active," Martinez said. "There's no better way to get students excited and interested about doing science than having them actually do it themselves."

In addition to the traditional PUI challenges, UTEP faces unique challenges as a large urban institution, Martinez said. Many UTEP students are the first members of their families to attend college. In addition, many UTEP students face financial pressures that make it tough to convince them to choose research over higher paying jobs.

Despite UTEP's success with undergraduate research, the department has not made research mandatory for its students. "Although we have almost every faculty member active in doing research, not all of them have support for students. To require [research], we would have to have in place some mechanism to support students for the summer or academic year."

James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, Va., also has a long-standing history of undergraduate research. One of the ways JMU gets its students hooked on research is by incorporating research projects in the second-semester integrated inorganic/organic chemistry laboratory. Some of the projects have even resulted in publications.

"A lot of students then want to do organometallic research, and the rest of us have to fight to convince them that they want to do something else," according to Gina MacDonald, an associate chemistry professor. "The students who come out of that lab are very prepared to walk into a research lab. They can really hit the ground running because they already have some of the basic skills."

MacDonald contends that undergraduate research is imperative for professors to fulfill their responsibilities. "If we're not doing research with undergraduates, then we may not be doing our job in retaining the people who are going to go on to become the next generation of scientists. As educators, we're supposed to be training the next generation."

She stressed that teaching and research cannot be separated. "We really think that doing research with undergraduates is one of the best ways to retain science majors and one of the best ways to educate them."

Wenzel agrees. "You really want to think of yourself as an 'educator' as opposed to a 'teacher,' " he said. "You want to best educate your undergraduates. A high-quality research experience is an excellent educational experience. You shouldn't view teaching and research at an undergraduate institution as competing activities."

MacDonald believes that there are few limits on the type of research that can be done with undergraduates. "We do the same quality of research, but it's at a slower pace," she said. However, she acknowledged that professors at PUIs shouldn't pick "the most competitive area of science" in which to try to do research at an undergraduate institution.

Martinez said that doing research with undergraduates "forces you into a different mode." Unlike graduate students, undergraduates can't focus exclusively on their research for extended periods of time.

"YOU WILL HAVE that level of focus with undergraduate students, and that's really exciting, but you don't have it for an extended period of time," Martinez said. "You may have that level of focus for two consecutive summers. You may have it for a summer and an academic year. You may have it for just a summer. The nature of doing research with undergraduates is different with regard to the kind of focus and the kind of attention that they can dedicate."

Wenzel believes that "you do have to exercise more care in selecting projects that are both original and important contributions to the discipline but something that can be done with students who may work with you only one or two years." Projects that require a longer lead time before the students become comfortable with the techniques may not be good candidates for undergraduate institutions. He calls it an issue of "scale" and concedes that research at PUIs simply will not be as productive as research at doctoral institutions in terms of the number of publications.

Opinions differ about when undergraduates should become involved in research. Some people, like MacDonald, think the earlier the better. But Wenzel believes that assessment studies are necessary to determine the most effective ways to introduce students to research at an early stage.

"If we started involving students more and more in research in their first year, are there cautionary things you want to be careful about so that you make sure you're doing it effectively?" Wenzel asked. "I think that's an area where, quite honestly, we don't know enough about research in those early years and how to do it really effectively to know that it's right for everyone or how you structure it."

Wenzel suggested that professors exercise caution in starting students on research projects their first year. "It may well be that a student starts with you early, really thrives on that experience, sticks with it, and does a research project for a period of three years," Wenzel said.

"But I think you have to set it up so that students feel that's not a mandatory requirement. If it became so limiting that in your first year as an undergraduate you're signing up for your research adviser for the next four years, then I would agree that's not going to work for some students and will create the same kinds of frustration that accompany a graduate student where you are linked to someone for five years."

One way that faculty at PUIs can get involved with larger research projects is by collaborating with faculty members at larger institutions. Sibrina N. Collins, an assistant professor at Claflin University, a historically black university in Orangeburg, S.C., collaborates with scientists at Clemson University and Furman University. For example, one of her projects involves the synthesis and characterization of coordination polymers. If her group succeeds in growing crystals, they take them to Clemson, which has the X-ray crystallography facilities that Claflin lacks.

"If you're going to form a collaboration with a larger institution, you want to be in a position where you can do your part of the project in-house. You have to be mindful of what instrumentation and capabilities you have," Collins said.

ONE PROGRAM that is encouraging collaborations between faculty at a major research university and undergraduate institutions is the Research Site for Educators in Chemistry (RSEC) at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. The program is one of five such sites funded by the National Science Foundation. The different RSEC programs have different focuses but the same goal. According to Jeffrey T. Roberts, the head of the RSEC program at Minnesota, the programs aim "to bring faculty from Ph.D.-granting institutions together with faculty from PUIs to enhance the teaching and research capabilities of both types of institutions."

The Minnesota RSEC program is not just a summer program. It has a great deal of flexibility in terms of the collaborations it can support. For example, faculty from Drake University came to Minnesota because they wanted to develop expertise in computational chemistry to be able to offer a class. By the end of this summer, three Drake professors will have spent time in labs of researchers at the University of Minnesota, bringing themselves up to speed.

But the Drake collaboration is going one step further. "They wanted to be able to offer a course in computational chemistry but didn't feel competent to do it," Roberts said. "Last fall, we were able to send a senior graduate student [John Stubbs], who's interested in a PUI career, down to Drake, and he developed and taught a course in the fall." Part of the agreement was that he wasn't to be a "cheap and easy temporary faculty hire." The Drake faculty needed to agree to mentor him.

"I went down there and watched what was going on," Roberts said. "There were students taking the course, but the professors were all auditing it as well. They went out afterward and talked about what worked in the lecture, what didn't work, was the exam too hard--all those sorts of things. John will have gotten a tremendous bit of experience that we hope will make him more successful when he goes out into the job market."

Such collaborations benefit the larger institutions as well by supplying them with new sources of graduate students. "We feel that by building strong relationships, we'll keep our pipelines bigger and stronger," Roberts said. "I always tell people that enlightened self-interest is no evil. You want to structure programs so that everybody brings something to the table and they go away from the table with more than they brought in."

In addition, having professors from PUIs in the chemistry department at Minnesota has given the graduate students another source of career information. One participant, Scott Hartsel from the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, organized a symposium for graduate students at Minnesota; the University of Iowa; Iowa State University; and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who were interested in careers at PUIs.

SOME SCHOOLS have gone so far as requiring research experiences of their undergraduates. At Claflin, all of the science students are required to conduct research and prepare and defend a thesis. "Whether they like it or not, they have no choice but to stand up and do it. It gives them a chance to improve their communication skills," Collins said. "Granted, what we do here is not as intense as putting together a dissertation or master's thesis, but nevertheless it prepares them for graduate school."

David R. Kanis, a chemistry professor at Chicago State University, another predominantly minority-serving institution, said that getting money at minority-serving institutions is usually not a problem. "There are a lot of people who want to see you succeed, both in granting agencies and at the [research] institutions," he said. "I probably get a call a week from a research institution that wants me to be a co-PI [principal investigator] on one of their grant proposals. If you include somebody like us on some multi-million-dollar instrument you want to buy, it helps you get what you want."

James Madison University has a long-running Research Experience for Undergraduates summer program where students such as (from top) Erin Edwards, Will Gemmill, and Adrian Barojas can get valuable lab experience.
James Madison University has a long-running Research Experience for Undergraduates summer program where students such as (from top) Erin Edwards, Will Gemmill, and Adrian Barojas can get valuable lab experience.

The real problem is the infrastructure to use that money effectively. "We don't have a university that's familiar with these kinds of grants. We don't have graduate students to [prepare] the grants. We don't have the tech people to help us with our computers," Kanis said. "When you want to help schools like us, sometimes just giving us money is not what's going to lead to success. Funding agencies have certain things they can spend money on. They assume the universities are taking care of the rest of the stuff. At schools like ours, the university doesn't. Just giving us a million dollars to do research doesn't always yield the results they like to see."


Kanis advocates judicious selection of projects at undergraduate institutions. He doesn't want to have "to drill too deep to get oil" because he knows that he can't win a race against large, research-intensive schools. "For us, money is not the issue," he said. "Where we lose is the time when we're competing with the other schools."

Some schools are feeling the pressure to expand their research programs to more than just undergraduates. For example, UTEP has been so successful with its undergraduate research that it is starting a Ph.D. program. "As departments evolve or institutional missions evolve, you've got to be responsive to those challenges and needs," Martinez said. "In many ways, the strong tradition of undergraduate research that we've been doing for the last 30 years or so has propelled us to the point that the powers that be have looked favorably on our productivity and history in undergraduate research and said, 'We think you have the resources to begin to build a Ph.D. program.' "

JMU's MacDonald worries that forcing successful comprehensive universities to develop graduate programs may sacrifice the very things that have made them successful in the first place. "With universities like ours, there's some pressure to do that--[start graduate programs]--without a complete understanding of the amount of money it would take to have a good one," she told C&EN. "If you think about it, you take away our funding sources. No more can we go for some of these grants [that are aimed at undergraduate institutions and] that we've been really successful at obtaining. You take those out of the picture, and you might even decrease funding."

Research is indeed an important part of the educational experience at undergraduate institutions. The summit and symposium organizers and participants hope that their experiences can serve as a guide to others at undergraduate institutions who want to strengthen their research capabilities.


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