SUU In View (Alumni Magazine - Spring 2002)
Hands On - At SUU, research is not just for grads
It is a fortuitous circumstance that allows SUU undergraduate science students to actively engage in research, which prepares them well for their futures, be they in graduate school or in any number of fields of science.
SUU science students are led in their pursuits by faculty who go far beyond the call of duty to prepare them to succeed. The program has as its cornerstone, an award of $250,000 donated by the Keck Foundation, augmented by a matching amount from the University for equipment, renovations and other uses to aid students. And, several faculty supplement or match part of the Keck money with funding from other sources.
Graduate programs, government agencies and industry all over the country are becoming aware that SUU students in the sciences have been well trained to step right into a variety of advanced programs. And the SUU faculty in biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science are becoming increasingly renowned for the lengths to which they will go to provide practical application of the sciences to their students. In fact, an article titled "No Course, No Instructor, No Money, but Faculty Find A Way," collaborated upon by Tod Amon, associate professor of computer science, Eric Freden, assistant professor of mathematics, and associate professor of biology, Terry Schwaner, ran in the January 2002 issue of Teaching For Success.
Indeed, Ted Case, a professor of biology at the University of California-San Diego, who spent three days as a visiting scholar at SUU in November, was impressed by the amount of mentorship and counseling that goes on at SUU, given the relatively small number of faculty members who do not employ teaching assistants. "It's quite extraordinary how much the SUU faculty teaches atop all else they do," he says. "And, it's amazing how close the faculty are to the students and how much they do for the students."
Heidi Sofia, a senior research scientist for the Department of Energy Pacific Northwest Laboratory in Richland, Wash., was also impressed during her concurrent visit with the amount of undergraduate research being conducted at SUU as well as the caliber of students in the College of Science. She reinforced what SUU faculty members have said when she told biology majors that they needed more math, chemistry and computer science for the future of their pursuits.
It is the fusion of various scientific disciplines that has driven faculty of the College of Science to offer a mentoring course on bioinformatics, which was spurred by the Human Genome Project that maps out our genetic makeup. Students who can apply the principles of science on a myriad of levels with a computer foundation are becoming the most sought after scientists in the world.
Students in the course are required to apply for a semester-long fellowship at one of several Department of Energy laboratories. Four SUU students are engaged in research at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., and seven more have been or likely will be accepted to various labs.
"The mentorship is just another example of why I chose to go to SUU," Katrina Weaver, a junior pre-med major from South Jordan, Utah, says. "It is a smaller school, but that is why I am able to work one-on-one with my professors so often. SUU offers me unique opportunities in undergraduate research."
An earnest promoter of attending graduate school, Schwaner believes in the benefits that undergraduate research offers in teaching students how to do research, making them more eligible for post-graduate work. "It is our role to teach students how to perform research and to prepare them for graduate research," he says. "To do this, we have faculty who mentor students to design and conduct original studies, present the results, and even publish."
Weaver states of Schwaner, "In all that he teaches, he is preparing his students for the opportunities and choices grad school offers. The mentorship will better prepare and qualify me to apply to different grad schools to do my own research project for credit at SUU."
Schwaner is adamant in reminding others that SUU is "not a research institution, and we have no intention of stepping on the toes of any other schools in the state in the area of research. However, we are now inundated with students who want to participate in these programs. We are overwhelmed with up to 30 students per year wishing to perform research and that is a great number."
"Research is what being a scientist is all about," says Kate Grandison, associate professor of biology. "It's not just talking about and reading about applications, but actually performing them that leads these students to success. This work is an incredibly powerful learning experience."
Grandison's projects include one that monitors the habitat and behavior of bats in abandoned mines which have been sealed due to safety concerns.
Assistant Professor of Biology Helen Chuang's students are studying antibiotic resistance in bacteria that live in aquatic ecosystems, and also, a survey of student attitudes toward the teaching of evolution, which not only provides experience in gathering data but provides future science teachers insight into the views and needs of students. Chuang firmly believes that research is the basis for learning. "Undergraduate research teaches students, in a very real way, the process of how to do science. If they don't learn firsthand the applications of what they learn in the classroom, then much of that knowledge is lost."
Overall, SUU's program has enabled a number of students to gain prestigious appointments to national laboratories and to gain admission to medical schools and other graduate programs. SUU's rate of acceptance into medical schools remains the highest in the region.