Student research is one way for students to get involved with their education and may be easier to do than students think. Photo by Lindsay Nemelka
By Lindsay Nemelka
Several years into college, Landon Frost switched his major from music to biology with no idea which direction he would head towards. Like any wide-eyed novice, he started with basic biology classes to decide what he wanted to emphasize in.
A year after his 180-degree switch, Frost got involved in several undergraduate research projects volunteering in entomology and ecoli laboratories to further investigate his interests.
Currently a senior preparing for med school, Frost looks back upon his first year of biology and wishes he had been involved in research earlier because of the hands-on experience he gained outside of the classroom.
“I wish I would have known that my educational experience could have been better as a freshman and a sophomore because I feel like I’ve learned a lot more practical things from my labs,” Frost said.
He now works as a peer advisor for the biology department and vouches for the importance of research experience. “It sets us apart from the crowd,” Frost said. “I’ve been able to make myself a lot more marketable, I feel, and see what research is really like.”
The most important thing Frost said he learned from his volunteer experience was not the skills he gained or the resume perks, but the direction it gave him. “I discovered I don’t want to do research as a career after volunteering,” he said.
Biology Department Academic Advisor Yvonne Kobe said, “research can kind of help clarify direction, potential places [students] want to go, or what they want to do.” Yvonne said she believes the main importance is “to help students understand what’s out there.”
Utah State’s status as a research-based institution makes it unique. Many of the professors have experience in their field, and the university requires them to continue publishing research.
This ongoing research creates opportunities for students to get involved with a range of unique research topics and find what they like (and don’t like). “I totally agree with the fact that we have unbelievable research going on,” Yvonne said. “There’s huge opportunity out there.”
However, just because Utah State is a research-based institution does not mean there are equal opportunities for everyone. “The problem I think that comes up is that students expect it to fall in their lap,” Yvonne said. She suggested that students who only talk to their research coordinator are not going to be as successful as others who look for additional routes. “Anybody that wants to, that is proactive, can get in,” she said, and professors will often create positions based on student interest.
There are a number of ways for students to get involved in research. For example, take a look at the Biology website, or any other department research site. Another good place to start is http://research.usu.edu/undergrad/ or talk to your career coach about research opportunities off campus.
Check out the faculty pages. Most professors and faculty have detailed information about the research they are performing and publications available to read.
Get a good grasp on what kind of research is going on campus. If you find something that interests you, find out more about it. Email the professor asking for their office hours; remember you don’t have to be in their class to meet with them.
Probe the professor’s about their research. Go in with no expectations of getting any sort of job. Students that are sincerely curious and not trolling for a resume advantage are more likely to be successful in getting an opportunity to work on a research team. “To go in and get research experience because you’re meeting a professional school’s requirements is not a reason to get involved in research. It needs to be something you’re interested in, that you want to be exploring, and that you are invested in,” Yvonne said.
Offer to volunteer at the professor’s lab. Most paid positions start out as volunteer work after they discover you are able to bring something unique to the table.
Remember to look outside your major for research opportunities. Yvonne said, “There’s nothing saying you got to be a biology major to do biology research.”
Choose your classes wisely. Don’t choose the classes you can breeze through the easiest. Take the ones that offer the most lab time, or have a professor whose research interests you. Yvonne advises to “take classes that are going to support and maybe enhance that ability to maybe get involved in research.”
Getting involved in club activities is another great way to meet people who are interested in research. There is a club for almost everything at Utah State including pre-med, women in health sciences, and chem club; so there is no excuse for not finding your special niche.
Get on your department’s email list for continuous updates on campus research, guest speakers and events. Sifting through twenty emails a day may be annoying, but staying in the loop is essential in getting your foot in the door.
Get started sooner rather than later. “Professors ideally want long-term commitment,” Frost said. “If you are a freshman willing to commit for four years, you’re a lot more marketable than a junior or senior only committing to one-to-two years.” Getting an early start will also increase the likelihood of authoring a publication, but there are no absolute definers, advises Yvonne.
Getting involved in research can open many doors to future educational endeavors and help students become more marketable to employers. More important, is the passionate discovery of the unknown that research can bring.
“I’m seeing more and more student’s expecting that they have the right to be involved in research. This is something you need to earn,” Yvonne said. Utah State University is a great place for undergraduate research, if you just know where to look.