Students display research with a passion
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Kofi Asenso-Mensah, a junior at the University of Buffalo, wants to bring medical science a step closer to creating an improved artificial heart for infants.
Just as passionate are Robert Leonard, a senior at West Virginia University studying black holes, and Duquesne University forensic science and law major Brittany Malik, who wants to help law enforcement identify traces of cocaine on U.S. currency.
Even if their research doesn't pan out, the undergraduates -- and more than 100 others who displayed their work yesterday at Duquesne -- are getting something valuable: a bit of scientific discovery, viewed as increasingly important to landing a job or securing a spot in graduate school.
Nationwide, colleges are trying to give more of their undergraduates the chance to work beside faculty in research areas as diverse as biology and sociology. That is evident from a proliferation of events like yesterday's daylong Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium at Duquesne, which drew students from 50 campuses in Pennsylvania and from as far away as California and Mississippi.
The students, assembled outside Mellon Hall next to their poster presentations, spoke enthusiastically of their faculty-supervised work. Make no mistake, with study titles that included "Nitrile Anion Dimers in Lithium Tetrahydrofuran Solvent," these students were tackling something way beyond light summer reading.
"There's everything here, from students working in physics and astronomy -- looking at computer simulations of quasars and black holes -- to students who are doing drug design," said David Seybert, dean of Duquesne's Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences, which hosted yesterday's event.
Many of the presenters were finishing a 10-week summer program at Duquesne in which undergraduates work full time in research teams for a stipend. A portion of the projects are funded through the National Science Foundation, school spokeswoman Karen Ferrick-Roman said.
Over the years, discussion of academic research has tended to focus on doctoral-degree-granting campuses, where much of the nation's leading-edge science is explored. Students who worked in labs were assumed to be graduate level.
That has been changing. Four-year colleges that serve mostly undergraduates and stress teaching have been among the most ambitious in promoting direct collaboration between faculty researchers and students.
Major research campuses, like Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, also have made major investments in making sure undergraduates have the opportunity and resources to do such work.
Nancy Hensel, executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Undergraduate Research, says the trend is evident in her own organization's growth -- up from 385 member institutions three years ago to 510 today.
Recent additions include the University of Georgia, the University of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education, whose 14 state-owned universities include California, Clarion, Edinboro, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities.
The council's founders had chemistry in mind, Dr. Hensel said. But today, her organization is helping to encourage undergraduate research well beyond the hard sciences, with plans to expand into humanities and fine arts.
"The word we're getting is that if students are applying to graduate school, they are expected -- particularly in the sciences -- to have an undergraduate research experience," she said. "In some cases, they even will have published in a peer-reviewed journal."
Many educators view these hands-on endeavors "as the best way to learn," she said.
Some students can finish the research without leaving campus, while others are going halfway around the globe. One professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., takes undergraduates to Siberia, Dr. Hensel said, and students elsewhere have gone to such places as Cambodia and Nicaragua.
Two years ago, Indiana University of Pennsylvania President Tony Atwater created a campus-wide symposium for undergraduate research there. Already, the April event draws some 500 participants.
Under a long-standing tradition, every senior at Chatham University must participate in a dissertation-level research project, spokesman Paul Kovach said.
At Duquesne, elementary and early education major Brianne Miller, 22, of Ross, eventually wants to teach. But her project to take existing health-related videos geared toward elementary school children and create printed workbooks and handouts has proven to be an eye-opener.
"Some people think when they go into the education profession, all they can be is a teacher or a principal or something like that," she said. "It's made me realize there are other things out there."
First Published July 27, 2007 11:11 pm