The University Record, April 5, 1999

Research experiences offer many benefits to students

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications
The undergraduate research experience benefits students in several ways, panelists suggested, including increased motivation to study, a more in-depth knowledge base, and feeling welcome in academic departments. Student panelists included, from left, Rose Do, Tonya Myers, Gerard Jenkins, Suzanne Blum, Jim Wright, Ritesh Agrawal, Laura Bruenengraber and Richard Witt.

Working on research projects as undergraduates sparks intellectual curiosity, immerses students in academic life, boosts self-confidence, and exposes students to new career options, according to a panel of experts.

Speaking at the Jerome B. Wiesner Policy Symposium last week, eight student panelists described their research experiences as undergraduates. They also suggested how lecture and seminar classes could be tweaked to provide some of the benefits gained through participating in research.

For Richard Witt, graduate student in physical oceanography and remote sensing, working as an undergraduate with physiologist Warren E. Lockette on sports medicine studies made him aware of what he needed to do to succeed in classes. "When I started in school, I was not doing very well. My mentor gave me ideas about how to improve, which led to my applying to graduate school," the member of the Michigan varsity track and field team explained.

"Research is my education," said Suzanne Blum, a junior majoring in chemistry. "The class stuff is secondary. Research has given me the drive and made me sure I want to go to graduate school." The Honors Program student's research on organic metal synthesis and solid-state chemistry make her feel part of the Department of Chemistry and introduced her to faculty members at other universities, Blum added.

Laura Bruenengraber, a first-year Honors Program student enrolled in "Introduction to Global Change," said she was hesitant to become involved in research. Since designing a simplified model of the atmosphere, however, she is convinced that it is important to begin research as soon as possible because of the openings it provides to new fields of academic interest.

Panelist Jim Wright, a junior majoring in pre-law, agreed. Since transferring to the U-M last September and joining the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, Wright has worked with children and now thinks he might like to teach. With his mentor, David Scobey, director of the Arts of Citizenship Project, Wright is researching and teaching the history of Ann Arbor.

"It is important to get involved as soon as possible because of the time it takes to polish a good research project," said Tonya Myers, who will receive her bachelor's degree in political science in May.

Myers' community-based research with Patrick C. West, the Samuel T. Dana Associate Professor of Outdoor Recreation, began with a look at toxic fish consumption by Detroit residents and has evolved into creating alternative food sources, including a community garden and farmer's market.

Myers suggested that faculty could offer the benefits of research experiences to more students by assigning case studies.

Rose Do, who earned a bachelor's degree in molecular biology and political science in 1998 from the University of Arizona and who participated in the Undergraduate Biology Research Program there, said she chose a research-based introductory level biology class that had only 30 students rather then the traditional larger lecture class. It was challenging because students were tested with open-ended essays and had to work together rather than memorize facts, Do explained.

Working as a first-year student in Tom Kerppola's Medical School laboratory on the regulation of cytokine gene expression initially seemed overwhelming to Gerard Jenkins, but the sophomore biochemistry major soon found his lab experiences were helping him in class. "Dr. Kerppola took me under his wing and explained what I had to do to be successful," Jenkins recalled. When your principal investigator has confidence in you, it increases your drive to work hard, Jenkins added.

Ritesh Agrawal, a Michigan State University student majoring in microbiology and biochemistry, said that in addition to learning technical skills, undergraduate researchers also become critical readers and adept at discussing their research at an academic level. Research experiences have become the foundation for the rest of his academic career, Agrawal added.