Thursday, Dec. 01, 2005
Utah State University biologists stepped into the spotlight Nov. 30 to present cutting-edge research findings ranging from tissue-engineered cardiac stents to an update on the Nobel Prize-winning polymerase chain reaction 'technique of the decade.'
Were the scientists distinguished professors? Doctoral candidates? Actually, no. The more than twenty presenters were all undergraduate biology majors, some of whom are in their first semester of research, who displayed posters and gave talks at the USU Biology Department’s first Semi-Annual Biology Undergraduate Research Conference.
"The idea for the event came from an informal faculty meeting last spring where we were kicking around ideas about how to enhance our undergraduates’ learning experiences," said Jon Takemoto, professor and department head. “We thought the conference would provide a way for the students to get together and share their experiences and gain confidence in presenting to their peers.”
Takemoto said that students engaged in original research, particularly in the earliest phases of their education, perform better in college and in their eventual careers. In addition, he said, it is imperative for undergraduates seeking admission to competitive graduate and professional schools - including medical schools – to have research experience.
USU graduates have a medical school acceptance rate of 85 percent, compared with the national average of 45 percent.
“Med schools don’t even look at your application if you don’t have research experience,” said Uyen Lam, a conference presenter and an aspiring physician. Lam, a first-year Aggie who graduated from Logan High School in 2004, displayed her efforts in optimizing a technique for early detection of Whirling disease in fish.
Lam said she was nervous before presenting her research – her first formal presentation before faculty and peers. “I was afraid they’d ask questions I couldn’t answer.”
But as she took the podium her jitters calmed, she said, as she began talking about her work. “It was a good experience. I got some great suggestions from faculty on ways I could improve my experiments,” Lam said. “I’m new at this and still have a lot of work to do.”
The types of research USU undergrads pursue aren’t trivial, said Professor Joseph Li, who serves as a faculty mentor to Lam and a number of other undergraduates. Lam’s research, he points out, could accelerate efforts to prevent the spread of Whirling disease, which impacts recreational and commercial fishing throughout North America.
“Our students are involved in research that is competitive at national and international levels,” said Takemoto. “It is likely that more than one of these students will be presenting their current work at professional and scientific meetings.”
He added that conducting research is one thing, explaining it is another. “Presenting work orally or as a poster is a great way to make students think about what they’re doing. It makes them take a hard look at their results and data and often reveals what’s missing or needs to be done.”
Senior Rochelle Gainer, who works in Paul Wolf’s lab and presented her research findings on a plant endangered by Las Vegas’ burgeoning development, said her lab partners help her rehearse. “This was my first presentation, so my lab buddies really put me through the gauntlet.”
Research isn’t complete until the results have been shared with others, said Mary Barkworth, associate professor and a conference organizer. “One often finds new questions and goes back and does things differently. It’s all part of the research experience.”
Beyond honing presentation skills and building a resume, all the faculty members agree that the research experience is an enriching end in itself. Undergraduate research propels students beyond what they learn in the classroom and in books, said Li. “To conduct research, you have to make a decision to seek information in uninvestigated areas, you have to identify your objectives, plan an experimental approach and perform experiments to support or challenge existing hypotheses,” he said.
“From research I learned about surviving disappointment and frustration,” said Emily Warnock, who presented American Heart Association-funded research she conducted this past summer in Tim Gilbertson and Kytai Nguyen’s lab.
Warnock, who graduates from USU next spring, said she hopes to enter pharmacy school.
Research results are not always as exciting as one would hope, said Barkworth, but time spent in the lab or the field engages the student in a way that leads to a greater depth of learning than the classroom. “Fifty years from now, our students may not be able to remember what they learned in a textbook. But they’ll probably be able to tell you the results of their undergraduate research studies.”
The gathering included a poster competition. First place went to Jennifer Taylor, “Why do Host-Deprived Seed Beetles ‘Dump’ their Eggs?” (Frank Messina, faculty mentor); second place was awarded to Carson Holt, “A Novel Technique to Determine Microbial Growth Efficiency in Non-sterile Soils: The Application of Labeled Acetic Acid Vapor,” (John Stark, faculty mentor); and third place went to Will Israelsen, EmmaLee Ball and David Jones, “Epilepsy-Associated Mutation Alters Neuronal Sodium Channel Inactivation,” (Peter Ruben, faculty mentor). The Mini-Poster Prize went to Chad Coombs, “The Effects of Fatty-Acid Sensitivity on Kv 1.5 in CHO Cells,” (Tim Gilbertson, faculty mentor.)
All award recipients received USU Bookstore gift certificates.
Writer: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, 435-797-1429; firstname.lastname@example.orgContact: Jon Takemoto, 435-797-1909; email@example.com