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Mentoring Undergraduate Researchers

We asked NDSU faculty about their experiences and best practices in mentoring undergraduate students. Check back each week for updates.

Sherri Stastny, Ph.D. / Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences

Describe your research interests/program:
Nutrition and lifestyle factor identification for healthy aging

How have undergraduates been involved in your research?
Undergraduate students complete a variety of research tasks from putting together blinded placebo and supplement packets to entering food diary entries submitted by research participants. Thanks to software accessibility students can work at home on some projects while other projects require human interaction in our labs. 

Why do you think it's important to engage undergraduates in research?
By involving undergraduate students in research, we can give them a sneak preview of what it's like to be a graduate student; plus, having extra "hands" involved in our projects, we are able to accomplish more and often times, improve our processes. For example, having two undergraduate students work on same project, results can be cross-checked for accuracy. 

What advice would you give to a colleague who is interested in engaging undergraduates in research?
If considering inclusion of undergraduate students in a future research project, be sure to budget not only $ but also your time. Each student requires one-on-one attention and guidance--almost like teaching another class! However, the reward is not only results for your study, but also, the student walks away with new skills and ambitions. 

What is the best thing about being an undergraduate research mentor?
I really enjoy seeing the "lightbulb" moments in that young student; and the students bring so many new ideas to our projects!

Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences Studies are currently seeking participants >> learn more

Amanda Brooks, Ph.D. / Pharmaceutical Sciences

Describe your research interests/program:
My research program is at the interface of pharmaceutical sciences, bioengineering, and material sciences. Essentially, we genetically and chemically engineer spider silk to endow it with new biological and material properties that makes it suitable as a "smart" drug delivery system. "Smart" drug delivery systems are able to be triggered by a biological condition to release their drug payload. Currently, we are developing systems to release an antibiotic only in the presence of an infection; the release of an opioid only in response to a biological signal for pain; and a glue silk that directs integration with bone. 

How have undergraduates been involved in your research?
Undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research from support staff that washes dishes and refills supplies to hands on research that is included in publications, presentations, and grants. Undergraduates have been particularly important in my animal program. 

Why do you think it's important to engage undergraduates in research?
The higher education system needs to change. In the age of the internet, it is no longer adequate for the professor to stand in front of the class and convey information to an eager student body. Undergraduate research is a critical part to providing an enhanced learning environment for students that will enhance their career preparation and clarify their path. Plus, it's just fun! 


Did you have an undergraduate research experience that inspired your own education and/or career? 
I always knew that I wanted to do research and be a scientist, but I did have a great research experience as an undergraduate at the University of Utah. I worked in 2 labs. In the first lab, we tried to determine how many introductions there were of the common pavement ant to North America and where the ant came from by sequencing mitochondrial DNA. In the second lab, I did histology on mouse brains in a lab studying muscular dystrophy. I also extracted antibodies from chicken eggs and did Sanger sequencing. These experiences definitely solidified my love of being in the lab and my passion for making sure that undergraduates have a great experience working in the lab. 

What advice would you give to a colleague who is interested in engaging undergraduates in research?
Just do it! You will not regret it. 

What is the best thing about being an undergraduate research mentor?
Seeing them get excited about learning and watching them achieve their goals. It's great to think that maybe I played a small part in it.

Alan Denton, Ph.D. / Physics

Describe your research interests/program:
My research interests are in theoretical and computational materials physics. We combine mathematical modeling with computer simulation methods to explore structural properties and thermodynamic phase behavior of soft materials. Systems of interest include colloidal suspensions and polymeric gels, of which many consumer products are composed, as well as synthetic nanomaterials. Our research aims to understand and predict how macromolecules, such as biopolymers and microgels, respond to crowded environments and self-assemble into ordered structures. The long-term goal is to guide experiments and facilitate design of new materials. Aside from fundamental interest, the research is motivated by potential practical applications, including drug delivery, biosensing, and water filtration. 

How have undergraduates been involved in your research?
Over the past few years, undergraduate students working in my research group have contributed to software development and computer simulations. They have developed Monte Carlo and molecular dynamics codes, run simulations, and analyzed data. Some students took the initiative to get involved as early as their freshman year. Many have earned course credit and some have been supported as research assistants during the summer. Most undergraduates in the group base their senior capstone project on some aspect of their research. In many cases, the research leads to conference presentations and publications, which can strengthen applications to graduate programs and jobs in industry. Over the past four years, seven undergraduate students in the group have appeared as first author on eight peer-reviewed journal articles. 

Why do you think it's important to engage undergraduates in research?
Engaging in research at the undergraduate level gives students a context for applying knowledge and principles from their courses and for developing their problem solving and presentation skills. Early experience also allows students to explore their interest in basic or applied research before deciding whether to continue with graduate studies. The Department of Physics strongly encourages undergraduates to get involved in research at any stage of their studies. 

Did you have an undergraduate research experience that inspired your own education and/or career?
During the summer after my junior year, I worked in a high energy physics group at the University of Toronto. My project involved writing code to analyze data collected from accelerator experiments at Fermilab with the goal of finding evidence of new elementary particles. A highlight of the summer was a group trip from Toronto to Chicago to visit Fermilab and meet with collaborators. Although my research interests eventually took a different turn, the experience gave me valuable perspective and appreciation for the effort required to make discoveries at the frontiers of science. 

What advice would you give to a colleague who is interested in engaging undergraduates in research?
It’s hard to generalize, as every discipline and research group is unique. However, I consider it important that research with undergraduate students be approached in the same way as any collaboration, with mutual respect and transparency. It's especially important, I think, that students acquire an overview of the field and an appreciation for the broader significance of their work while gaining the specialized knowledge and skills needed to progress. Opportunities to present their research — whether at local venues, such as NDSU EXPLORE, or at national conferences — can be valuable in motivating students and connecting them to a wider network of researchers. 

What is the best thing about being an undergraduate research mentor?
Mentoring students stimulates my research by challenging me to formulate new projects, delve into new problems, and explain the broader impacts of the work. Undergraduate students often bring tremendous energy and curiosity and can contribute fresh perspectives that enrich group discussions. As we work together to solve problems, we inevitably learn from and support one another. 

Ken Lepper, Ph.D. / Geosciences

Describe your research interests/programs:
Oceans are a fundamental component of the global climate system, but large lakes can also respond to and potentially even drive climate change. My research is primarily focused around understanding the interactions between large lakes and the global climate system. This involves studying shoreline histories of ancient glacial lakes such as Lake Agassiz as well as the modern Great Lakes: Superior, Huron, and Michigan. In addition to these long-term interests, I am currently part of an NSF supported collaborative team studying a previously unidentified glacial lake in Central Michigan. I established and continue to operate a geologic dating lab at NDSU, the “ODD Lab” (Optical Dating and Dosimetry), to support this research.

How have undergraduates been involved in your research?
Typically I supervise undergraduate lab assistants, but generally they are also working on an individualized research project. After they become familiar with the lab work and current projects, we devise a component of a larger project that can be carved out as their research. Sometimes the students begin working with me early enough that they can be involved in the fieldwork component as well as the lab component of a project.

As part of their research commitment, I strongly encourage and support the students to develop their project to the stage that can be presented at a national Geoscience conference. This way the student researchers are experiencing a wide arc of academic research: fieldwork, lab work, data collection, data interpretation, integration of results and professional communication of their research. Attending a conference will introduce them to larger scientific communities and can open their mind to future opportunities as researcher scientists. Over the years some UG students have contributed at a level that has earned them co-authorship on published papers as well.

More recently I have begun mentoring a team-based, student co-managed, authentic research course for undergraduates called CHRONOQUEST. The boundary conditions for the course are simple; the research question has to be about Lake Agassiz and something we can address with geochronology and field geomorphology. In spring semesters the students do literature readings for background, develop their research question, plan and execute the fieldwork. Lab work generally takes place over the summer by one of the student researchers from the course. The following fall semester the same group of students re-assembles to interpret results and prepare a conference presentation.

Why do you think it's important to engage undergraduates in research?
Honestly, I have never thought about this as a “why” question. For me, providing these opportunities is fundamental to my self-identification as a professor so I have never explored "why" it is important. I know from my own experiences as an undergraduate that research involvement can be one of the most transformational experiences a student can have at university.

Did you have an undergraduate research experience that inspired your own education and/or career?
Yes, absolutely! I was given the opportunity to participate in research as an undergraduate and I grabbed that opportunity with both hands. Ultimately, I prepared and defended a Senior Honors Thesis, attended several professional conferences, and earned co-authorship on two peer-reviewed papers all as an undergraduate. The research experience was absolutely the most formative experience of my professional life launching me toward my professorial career. So, I have always seen it as a duty and a privilege to provide research experiences to undergraduates because of the tremendous influence that it had on me as a young scientist.

What advice would you give to a colleague who is interested in engaging undergraduates in research?
1. Make sure you are providing experiences, not just using undergraduate labor, and make the experience as encompassing as possible. Try to give the students a window to see numerous components of your science not just the tasks that you need done.

2. Allow the students to see you as a person. Let them see your sense of humor, your curiosity, and your commitment. Its very useful for them to see the thinks you don’t know, what drives you to figure them out, and your joy when you do.

3. Its cliché, but lead and teach by example and be idealistic. Model the professional behavior, practices, and ethics you want to see the students develop and remind them that the journey of science is something special. 

What is the best thing about being an undergraduate research mentor?
Remembering and reinvigorating your own joy in science as you see it developing and playing out in the lives of younger people.


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Last Updated: Monday, February 04, 2019 3:13:24 PM
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