Volume XXV Number 1
Yves Brun, left, with students David Larson, standing, and Aaron Hinz
Copyright © 2002 Tyagan Miller
On a SMART research fellowship, Stuart Orr studies prairie grass species during summer 2002.
Photo courtesy IU South Bend
Beth Ann Reed conducted experiments in the laboratory of chemistry professor Douglas McMillen.
Photo courtesy IU South Bend
Biology professor Andrew Schnabel and students Stuart Orr and Marijana Guard form a "prairie crew."
Photo courtesy IU South Bend
Michael Boyles did undergraduate research in the IUPUI Department of Computer and Information Science. He is now a lead analyst and programmer at IU's Advanced Visualization Laboratory.
Photo courtesy IUPUI Office of Communications and Marketing
Discovering Student Discoveries
Two investigators in a biology lab carefully place a sheet of transparency paper over a petri dish that holds a colony of Caulobacter bacteria; they're making imprints of cells, hoping to identify genetic mutations. Across the Indiana University Bloomington campus at the IU Art Museum, another pair is poised over portrait medals from the 16th to 18th centuries, trying to determine which members of the Medici family are depicted in the disks of bronze and silver. On the Indiana University South Bend campus, a chemist works with new inorganic compounds containing bridged ruthenium metal clusters, testing their ability to absorb and emit light, conduct electrons, and influence atoms and molecules. Over in the psychology department, two interviewers question young adults whose parents are divorced to determine the impact of that event on their subjects' self-esteem and views of marriage. To the south, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis archaeologists excavate sites in the Ransom Place historic district, carefully unearthing food containers and transportation tokens from decades earlier. And in the IUPUI English department, a researcher videotapes American Sign Language speakers, studying the variation in vocabulary and sentence structures among speakers of different ages.
What's so remarkable about these vignettes? They suggest a day in the research life of a big university, right? Right, except the researchers involved are undergraduates.
"The contribution of undergraduate students to research is really important," says Yves Brun, associate professor of biology at IU Bloomington. "It's rewarding because if you've done your job well as a mentor, they are able to contribute intellectually to your research. And they're also just a lot of fun--these are bright people with whom I get to exchange ideas and have good intellectual conversations."
Brun's research involves the cell cycle of the Caulobacter bacterium. He's trained 24 undergraduate students in his lab, and he says they have made key contributions.
David Larson and Aaron Hinz have been a part of IU Bloomington's STARS (Science, Technology, and Research Scholars) program and Brun's research team since they were freshmen. Both recently won prestigious national scholarships and have written an article about their research, which they recently submitted for publication. Their work has focused on Caulobacter's "holdfast," the part of the bacterium that adheres to surfaces. They've helped identify eight genes involved in the synthesis of the holdfast adhesin (cell-surface components that facilitate adhesion to other cells).
"These students are absolutely doing the same level of research as graduate students," says Brun.
Brun likens a faculty member's job as a mentor to that of a coach, giving students a combination of encouragement and firm direction. "But we also have to let them find their way," he says. "Sometimes it's better to let them do an experiment that you know isn't going to work, because that's part of the learning process."
Larson and Hinz, who have worked together long enough that they finish each other's sentences, give Brun's mentoring high marks. "Yves is a really good mentor . . . " Hinz begins. "Yeah, he could motivate a rock," finishes Larson.
Both students agree that the research they've done in Brun's lab has kept them a few steps ahead of the learning curve. "We'd sit in a class, thinking 'Oh yeah, I've heard that before,'" says Hinz. "In one lab class, we'd do an experiment every week, and we would have done the same experiment in Brun's lab the week before."
Honor students in high school who had an interest in science early on, Larson and Hinz cite acceptance to the STARS program as the reason they chose IU over the other schools they were considering. The program's goal is to prepare future scientists. It offers students four years of laboratory research experience with a faculty mentor, an annual stipend for research projects, journal subscriptions, travel to scientific conferences, and participation in the annual IU STARS Research Symposium.
Undergraduate research extends widely beyond the sciences at IU. At the IU Art Museum in Bloomington, the Glaubinger Scholarship supports undergraduate fine arts students interested in museum research. Scholarship recipients Margo Handwerker and Matt Neff, both art history students, recently worked with graduate student Beth Clark to put together an exhibit of commemorative medals depicting members of the Medici family. Heidi Gealt, director of the IU Art Museum, suggested the idea of selecting medals from the museum's collection.
"Our message to undergraduates is that their education is not complete unless they have exposure to original works of art," Gealt says. "If you teach someone how to see, how visual communication works--especially if they interact with it on the level of a research project--that's something they can enjoy for a lifetime."
Clark says collaborating with undergraduate students to put together the Medici medals exhibit was rewarding for all. "I felt like a leader, in terms of making decisions about the design of the exhibit, but I also felt like we were equals. And they gained the experience of doing research that wasn't just for a paper. They could see their work fruitfully displayed in a public exhibit."
Such hands-on research opportunities are supported in spirit and with funds on all of IU's campuses. Kathryn Wilson is associate dean for research and graduate studies in the School of Science and director of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at IUPUI, which will host the 2004 National Conference on Undergraduate Research.
"Research is one of the best ways we establish connections between the faculty and students and make a very large campus seem much smaller," she says. "On a campus like IUPUI, where the majority of students commute, this solid personal connection is especially important."
Wilson notes that research experiences also encourage independent thinking for students, helping them understand their own strengths and weaknesses as well as their scholarly interests. "A career path becomes more clear," she says. And, she adds, studies show that participation in undergraduate research improves persistence to graduation and raises students' GPAs. She's seen students who "aren't particularly stellar in the classroom" excel in a research environment and subsequently improve their classroom performance. "Promoting undergraduate research doesn't just promote creativity and scholarship, it also raises academic standards," she says.
Increasing the diversity of students participating in research is a key part of IU's efforts to raise the enrollment, retention, and graduation rates of underrepresented minority students. At IU Bloomington, the McNair Scholars program offers first-generation and underrepresented students opportunities to engage in faculty-guided research and undergraduate teaching internships. Similarly, IUPUI's Minority Research Scholars Program, which has demonstrated a 100 percent retention rate, recruits talented minority students from area high schools and engages them as freshmen in faculty-mentored research. Beginning with the 2002-03 fall semester, IU East's new research scholars program supports two underrepresented minority students from each academic division in research projects of their choice, guided by faculty mentors.
IU's regional campuses offer few graduate programs, so undergraduates play particularly important roles, according to Marcia Segal, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs and dean for research at IU Southeast.
"Faculty members in specialized areas may be isolated from colleagues doing similar work and lack graduate students and postdocs to assist them," Segal says, making undergraduate students key research collaborators.
IUS awards grants for student research and for faculty members to conduct research training workshops. Among other initiatives, the campus also offers an honors research Minor, which gives students academic credit for completing a research-based senior thesis, awards Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, and publishes a student-edited undergraduate research journal. Students who are trained as research associates by the IUS Applied Research and Education Center also participate in community-based research projects such as needs assessments for nonprofit organizations and government agencies.
"Having students actively engaged in challenging academic activities helps to create an intellectual community and a sense of belonging," says Segal.
Students provide outreach to the larger community surrounding IU Northwest, where undergraduates are engaged in research related to problems facing northwest Indiana. For example, public and environmental affairs student Paul Schrock received support from IUN's Undergraduate Research Fund for his research on air quality in the region as did sociology student Lynicia Gransberry, who presented her research on incarcerated mothers and their children at IUN's Women's Studies Conference in spring 2002.
Most of IU's undergraduate research programs offer support for students to make presentations at professional conferences, an important part of research life outside the lab or work room. At IU South Bend, three students from the campus's Student/Mentor Academic Research Teams (SMART) program were selected to present their research at the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Mark Royer shared the results of his ongoing work on the properties of ruthenium metal clusters and their possible application in designing nonlinear communications optics. Wendy Gunggoll and Dawn Krider presented their work, directed by psychology professor Carolyn Schult, on the effect of parental divorce on young adults' self-esteem and attitudes toward marriage later in life. SMART supports undergraduate student research in other ways as well, including summer fellowships and internship grants.
"I think students are always surprised and impressed that IU South Bend professors have active research programs and that they have an opportunity to do research themselves," says Andrew Schnabel, IUSB associate professor of biology.
Undergraduates from all IU campuses have the opportunity to share their research at the university's annual Undergraduate Research Conference. Last year's topics ranged from bacteria populations in snapping turtle eggs to "Pornography: The Definition and the Reality."
In short, undergraduate research at IU is everywhere, alive and well.
David Larson, reflecting on four years of Yves Brun's mentorship, sums it up: "Research has been such a big part of my life at IU, I can't imagine not having done it," he says. "This experience has given me a sense of direction. I feel like I'll come of out school with an edge on everyone else, knowing that I've done something really important."
Erika Knudson is a client relations manager and writer for the IU Office of Publications in Bloomington, Ind.