Unexpected Discoveries

Undergraduate Students Who Do Research with Faculty Reap Tangible, Intangible Rewards

Shelby Cloer did not know what she wanted to do with her future. She was a business major who happened to take a geology class one semester. As the lessons intrigued her and inspired her curiosity, Cloer decided to approach her professor about research opportunities. Now, she’s a senior getting her bachelor of science in geology.

“Research can lead you in the right direction and get your foot in the door for graduate school,” Cloer said.

Undergraduate research opportunities are found across campus. For many students, such opportunities offer a way to explore their interests, gain practical experience, and set themselves apart from other students for graduate school and the job market.

In the Department of Geological Sciences, between 10 and 20 undergraduate students work with department faculty or staff on some form of research each semester. The students can be seen in labs as well as in the field. Geoffrey Tick, an associate professor and undergraduate program director in the department, said the department offers research opportunities ranging in topics and fields, and these opportunities give students an idea of what to expect at the graduate or professional level.

“I think it also gives them an idea that research is research and we don’t know a lot of things,” Tick said. “But that’s what’s interesting about research is that we don’t know it, so it really gives them an idea of what the scientific method is all about.”

Hannah Wright, a junior getting her bachelor of science in geology, has done paleontology research since her freshman year. She focuses on soft rock geology, specifically studying the growth of shells, and how it can be used to engineer structures.

“I knew it was important in the sciences to be specialized as early as possible, so I started as a freshman,” Wright said.

Not every research lab is open to freshmen, however. John Vincent, a professor in the Department of Chemistry, prefers his students to wait until their sophomore year. He said he wants students to have enough knowledge from classes to be able to do the work. There’s nothing like teaching them by having them do actual research, he said, because they gain so much more than they would just by listening to him as he stands in front of the class.

“You actually get to do the leading-edge stuff in your field to see if that’s what you want to do,” Vincent said. “In terms of learning, there’s nothing like actually going in and doing it for yourself rather than reading about it in the textbook. It really brings it alive for the students.”

He said he currently has about five undergraduate students in his lab. He knows he could do the research at a faster pace, he said, but he likes to have students in the lab trying it out and making mistakes like he did years ago. Michael Royko is one of Vincent’s undergraduate students. Royko is a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering who started working with Vincent this past August after taking one of his classes.

Royko said his hours are flexible and everything is well laid-out for him in the lab. He said Vincent explains an experiment, then leaves him to do the work. At times, he is alone in the lab, which he said can be very relaxing. The most challenging part, he said, is just finding the different chemicals in the cabinet.

“I feel like I’m actually doing something,” Royko said. “It’s very independent. It gets more into what you’re learning in a class but in a lab setting.”

Ryan Earley, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, said learning outside of the classroom is an integral part of undergraduate research. He likes to have freshmen in his lab because he said it gives students more time to master techniques.

Earley looks for students who show enthusiasm, passion, and openness to criticism while working in his lab. He doesn’t think keeping freshmen out of the lab is the right approach, he said, because knowing the process is more important than having the knowledge of the material — especially since all lab work involves basic processes.

“Undergraduate research teaches them they have the capacity to think on that level early on,” Earley said. “It increases their confidence in science, their confidence in their ability to navigate tough situations in science and life.”

Students in Earley’s lab get the opportunity to work at all levels, focusing on animal behavior. They gain experience from microscopic work in the lab and traveling for fieldwork. Earley has more than 70 undergraduate students working in his lab. Molly Cook is a senior double majoring in marine science and biology. She wanted to work in Earley’s lab because she said she knew it would benefit her.

Cook started working in his lab as a freshman. Being able to graduate with eight semesters of lab work under her belt, Cook said, really prepares her for graduate school. She already has her own research project in which she has seven students working under her. She said this project really helped strengthen her abilities.

“I have really grown just as a student, learning many aspects of science, and I’ve grown as a researcher,” Cook said. “It’s like having a platform to build on instead of having to build a platform and then build off of that layer.”