Campus Life

USU Recognized for Best Undergraduate Research Program in Nation

By Brigitte Hugh |

Tessa Burrows, a biological engineering major, working on a retinal project to determine if spider silk membranes could be fabricated at different thicknesses to promote stress factors in retinal cells related to macular degeneration. Photo credit: Wyatt Traughber.

Utah State University has been announced as the recipient of the 2020 Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments (AURA), recognizing USU as a national leader in undergraduate programs for research and creative inquiry. The award will be presented by the Council for Undergraduate Research (CUR) on April 22.

“USU student researchers are making a direct difference for our communities and the state,” said Alexa Sand, associate vice president for research at Utah State. “We are honored to accept the Council on Undergraduate Research’s most prestigious award on their behalf.”

Established in 1975, USU’s undergraduate research program is one of the oldest in the nation. Each year, the undergraduate research program provides funding, training and events to hundreds of students.

“In addition to engaging a large number of students, faculty participation across all colleges is impressive, as is active participation in CUR, receipt of undergraduate education awards and opportunities for student and faculty recognition,” said Lindsay Currie, CUR executive officer. “The institutional research effort also bolsters an impressive number of student-authored publications.”

Sand echoed Currie’s sentiment saying that Utah State’s accomplishments are largely due to its deeply institutionalized value for undergraduate research and the programs the university has developed to support a widespread culture of engaged learning.

A Culture of Undergraduate Research

“Undergraduate research is central to who we are as a land-grant institution,” said Noelle Cockett, president of USU. “Student research and creative inquiry combines the strengths of our three-part mission of learning, discovery and engagement. We know firsthand the exceptional benefits that come from strengthening ties between our undergraduates and our faculty researchers and having them tackle projects that are important to our state, nation and the world.”

Students begin engaging in research in their general education courses, and most continue to engage until graduation, with 60 percent of degrees requiring a research or creative-activity capstone. In a 2012 national survey, USU had the highest rate of student participation in undergraduate research and estimates on current involvement maintain that lead.

Innovation in Every Season

Much of the success of undergraduate research at Utah State University can be attributed to the commitment of faculty and administration to program evolution and innovation.

“The Student Research Symposium (SRS) is an excellent example of this principle,” said Sand.

Since 1985, USU has held this annual university-wide showcase of undergraduate research where students present posters and short talks and get feedback from experts in their field as well as other students. Every year, new ideas generated by participants help shape and improve SRS. Even the pandemic has opened new avenues, with the pivot to an online platform allowing for greater inclusion of online and statewide campus students.

“This is just one of many examples of constant program adaptation,” said Sand. “Others, including the Undergraduate Research Fellowship (URF), the Peak Summer Research Fellowship and the Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities grant, are frequently updated to improve student experience.”

Researcher Resilience

Research opportunities enable USU undergraduates to build resilience when they struggle, learn and try again with the aid of mentors and support systems.

“This program gives you the flexibility to make mistakes and learn,” said one undergraduate researcher.

Such setbacks are a step in the research process and participating in that process early teaches students how to fail forward.

“The Office of Research focuses on ‘whole person’ support for the students in our programs,” said Sand.

Beyond typical professional development and technical trainings, its programs aim to foster community engagement, and encourage social connection through personal and professional support networks.

“The office nurtures a community and family approach to our students—one of the reasons that participation in undergraduate research increases overall rates of graduation,” said Sand.

Undergraduate Research for All

“USU believes that the research is for every student no matter their major, background or status in school,” said Sand. “As such, we continually strive to make our programs as accessible as possible to underserved and underrepresented populations. I love the fact that undergraduate research at USU is not just about high achievers. We reach out to all students and potential mentors through workshops, public events and informational sessions as well as one-on-one advising and support.”

One of USU’s most successful programs, the Native American STEM Mentoring Program, brings Native American students from USU Blanding to Logan each summer to work with faculty mentors across campus on student research questions. At least 70 USU labs have hosted NASMP participants, and over 60 percent of these students have transferred to four-year programs from the two-year programs offered at Blanding.

Utah State University—A Beacon for Undergraduate Research

“Research—especially undergraduate research—is at the core of Utah State University’s land-grant mission and an important component of the Aggie identity,” said Lisa Berreau, USU vice president for research. “It is the tireless mentor support of student curiosity, drive and innovation that has placed USU in this prestigious tier of AURA awardees.”

The award includes national media coverage and a year-long enhanced CUR membership, which will give all USU employees access to everything from networking and collaboration opportunities to student resource databases and publications on mentorship.

“I appreciate the continuing dedication of the many faculty members and administrators who have worked for the past 45 years to build and expand opportunities for undergraduate researchers at Utah State,” said Cockett. “Even more, I’m grateful for thousands of exceptional USU students who have enthusiastically engaged in undergraduate research projects and have worked to create new knowledge and address critical issues.”

Hannah Johnson was an intern with the DNR species recovery office and helped out with the annual Bryce Canyon Butterfly survey. The photo was taken by a gracious fallen ponderosa pine and features from left to right: Hannah Johnson, Robbie Hannawacker, Amanda Barth and Ranger Halley.

Olivia Brock, a dual major in math and art history, looks up at one of the astrolabes she researched with the aid of an Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunity (URCO) grant. Photo credit: Mary-Ann Muffoletto.


Brigitte Hugh
Social Media & Undergrad Research Project Manager
Office of Research


Alexa Sand
Associate Vice President, Professor
Office of Research, Department of Art + Design


Research 874stories Awards 690stories Student Success 294stories Undergraduate Research 156stories Rankings 66stories

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