When Cristina Chirvasa found herself roving the halls of the U.S. Capitol this fall, striking up conversations with congressional staffers with research portfolio in hand, she didn’t consider the experience intimidating — just good practice. After all, Chirvasa has been pursuing research opportunities since high school, so conversation on this particular topic — even to high-level government representatives — felt like home turf.
Chirvasa, a senior majoring in Wildlife Ecology Management and Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, along with one of her research mentors, Matteo Petit Bon, a postdoctoral researcher from the Quinney College of Natural Resources, traveled to Washington D.C. by invitation from the Council of Undergraduate Research for the Scholars Transforming Through Research program, an event designed to aid students to build communication and advocacy skills related to undergraduate research.
Chirvasa and Petit Bon were invited to join top undergraduate researchers from around the country for a two day event that prepared them to present at offices of the U.S. Congress. It was an exciting experience, Chirvasa said, and one that helped her appreciate the level of support offered by USU’s undergraduate research program.
“It was interesting to realize a distinction between program support for undergraduate researchers at different institutions, and to recognize that USU is really exceptional,” she said. “There are so many opportunities and sources for funding here compared to many other places.”
The Scholars Transforming Through Research program recently replaced the Posters on the Hill event, a highly competitive program organized by the Council on Undergraduate Research, with USU delegates participating every year for the entire two decades of the program, said Alexa Sand, associate vice president for research at USU. It’s a real distinction to be the only Utah school with that kind of track record for representing university research at a national level, she said.
As a relatively experienced undergraduate researcher, Chirvasa has spent a fair amount of time thinking about what ingredients are needed to create a successful research program for undergraduate students. It usually starts with attitude, she said — not allowing yourself to be too intimidated by people who have more degrees than you do.
“I think it’s important to develop a bit of confidence in yourself at the start,” she said. “Many research opportunities open up just because you ask for them. There is a lot of power in just sending off an email with an inquiry about what you are interested in doing.”
And you don’t need to be highly skilled in research techniques to launch an undergraduate research experience, she said. Everyone starts at the beginning.
“Science is inherently full of mistakes,” she added. “There’s always a certain level of uncertainty in this kind of work. The important thing is to learn how to handle missteps the right way and to approach the process with integrity.”
Research can seem intimidating, but USU works hard to help it feel less of an elitist pursuit, she said. Even then, key voices would always be welcomed to the process.
“Research accessibility can always be improved. There are still many opportunities to reach out to the broader campus community and incorporate a more diverse set of voices in our undergraduate research programs,” she said. “Many undergraduates haven't been taught that they can jump into this kind of effort, or haven't been informed of existing opportunities.”
Skilled mentoring can also play a big role in creating a positive experience for undergraduate students, said Petit Bon, who is from the Department of Wildland Resources — but you need more than a single mentor on more than one level to successfully produce an experienced researcher.
Undergraduate peers who have more experience are a great way to gain insight and information at the onset, he said. Graduate students can help you take your skills to the next level, and professionals like postdocs and faculty have a diversity of benefits to help refine research skills like organization and critical thinking. Every level of mentoring has a particular benefit.
It’s a good idea to start early understanding how the research process works, he said. It can be a disadvantage to begin a graduate program with a blank research portfolio.
“It’s easy to be a mentor for a person who is inherently interested in a given topic,” Petit Bon said. “When you find someone who has already spent time out in the field, and figured out the basics of collecting and organizing data, and developing a hypothesis, that is a really great way to launch.”
Chirvasa and Petit Bon work with their faculty adviser, ecologist Karen Beard, in the Community and Global Change Ecology Lab exploring how different global change drivers are affecting high-latitude coastal wetland ecosystems. Chirvasa’s specific focus is on plant functional traits, which influence plant growth, reproduction and survival, as well as relate to ecosystem processes (like carbon sequestration).
In particular, the team works in the tundra landscape of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, Alaska, where they conduct experimental studies and observational surveys. Tundra ecosystems and wetlands store large amounts of soil carbon. Understanding how climate change might affect tundra ecosystems is thus critical for predicting feedback to atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and, in turn, the global climate system, they said.
Comments and questions regarding this article may be directed to the contact person listed on this page.