Utah State University scholar Mikayla Austin remembers how it felt to return to college after a few years absence.
“I felt a bit intimidated,” says the self-described non-traditional student, who resumed studies at USU’s Brigham City campus, after her employer ‘downsized’ her position. “I wasn’t sure I could measure up.”
But the Box Elder High School alum quickly found support from faculty mentors, who welcomed her ‘real-world’ expertise and enthusiasm. Austin began a research collaboration with Biology faculty mentor Jessica Habashi, for whom the undergrad was working as a tutor. Habashi was seeking ways to encourage other undergrads to get involved in research.
Austin presents the results of this project to state legislators at 2018 Undergraduate Research Day Wednesday, Feb. 28, on Utah’s Capitol Hill. The Public Health, Industrial Hygiene emphasis major and recipient of the Charles and Rae Perkins Scholarship, is among about 30 Aggies participating in the annual event, which showcases the importance of research in undergraduate education.
“Undergraduate research has plenty of documented benefits, including confidence-building, increasing technical skills, as well as fostering personal development and critical thinking,” Austin says. “But how do you motivate students to take advantage of research opportunities?”
Austin and Habashi noted previous studies cited use of advertising, word-of-mouth and other campus programs as ways to attract students to undergrad research. But the pair surmised many students, without previous research experience, might be reluctant to pursue such opportunities.
“Just as I initially lacked confidence as a new student, I felt others might assume they didn’t have enough experience or they weren’t far enough along in their studies to be considered for research participation,” Austin says. “Dr. Habashi and I came up with a different approach.”
Their pair chose to expose undergrads to research right in the classroom by implementing a semester-long research project in a general biology class for majors. And they had the perfect project in mind.
“Professor Kim Sullivan at USU’s Logan campus has been studying bird-window collisions and involves students in regularly surveying campus building for evidence of these collisions,” Habashi says. “A number of USU staff members at our Brigham City campus had reported seeing dead birds on the walkways near our new Classroom and Student Services Building, so adapting Dr. Sullivan’s project to our campus seemed like an easy fit into our lecture course and a way to provide real research experience for our students.”
Habashi guided Austin in creating a student survey to evaluate the undergrad participants’ perceptions of their research experiences, seeking Institutional Review Board approval for the survey and in learning how to conduct analysis of collected data. Austin was further tasked with supervising the project’s undergraduate volunteers.
“So far, students’ reaction to participating in research seem very positive,” Austin says. “It appears that many people just need a taste of research to want to do more.”
Habashi says research participation fosters a deeper understanding of the scientific process, along with critical thinking.
“Students learn important concepts and protocols, but the benefits of conducting research go far beyond experimental design,” she says. “Students build confidence in their abilities and can make more informed choices about pursing research as a career.”
For Austin, Habashi says, participation in the project will advance the undergrad’s goal of pursuing graduate study in epidemiology.
“Mikayla is getting vital experience in applying the statistics she’s learned about in her course,” she says. “In an even broader sense, she represents what research at a regional campus can be. It doesn’t take extensive funding or dedicated research space to provide an authentic and comprehensive research experience for our undergraduate students.”