Undergraduate Research Provides Opportunities, Growth For Students

By Kelsey Schwab

With the second oldest undergraduate research program in the nation, Utah State University provides students with more research experience now than in the past.

“Our undergraduate research program was established in 1975, and since that time it has grown dramatically,” said Katie Feinauer, project manager and communications for the Office of Research and Graduate Studies at USU.

USU ranks third in the nation in external funding for a college of education. Feinauer said for that reasons, undergraduate research is a very important part of Utah State.

According to Feinauer, there have been a lot of changes for students since 1975 due to the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program and the option of having an undergraduate research designation on their transcript.

“The URF program provides students an opportunity to be involved in research throughout all four years of their collegiate career,” Feinauer said. “Undergraduate Research Fellows are given a faculty mentor, they are frequently invited to participate in research conferences and they have socials and events. URFs also receive $1,000 annually, renewable based on performance. Undergraduate Research Fellows conduct some sort of research every semester and turn in semester reports focusing on their research. URF’s are also expected to maintain a high GPA.”

Salif Mahamane, a PhD student and the manager of the Multisensory Cognition Lab for the psychology department at USU, is attending his fourth year at USU. He said he has seen an increase in the level of involvement among undergraduate researchers.

“My first year and a half here there was a lot more turnover among the undergraduate research students, and they would be stuck doing random tasks in the lab,” Mahamane said. “Now more students are showing up and know what specific projects they’re most interested in. If they’ve been with a project for several stages or have been heavily involved in a few stages, they’ll now usually get the chance to present it at a conference or they can be an author of a published work.”

Other ways to get involved in undergraduate research include Undergraduate Research Creative Opportunity grants, which any undergraduate student can apply for. Students can be awarded up to $1,000 through the URCO grant and can then request additional funding for supplies and travel.

“URCO grants are fun because the research being conducted is student-driven,” Feinauer said. “Students are taking their passions and their interests and exploring them and finding new ways of thinking about things and making new discoveries. It’s exciting to see the level of engagement that comes from undergraduate students who participate in their own research.”

Students can also become involved in undergraduate research by becoming a research assistant to a faculty member. Many of these positions are listed on Career Aggie or announced in class by professors.

Mahamane said many undergraduate students also email a professor they are interested in doing research with to discuss the current research projects being worked on in that department.

“Professors are always involved within the research of undergraduate students,” Feinauer said. “If it’s student-led research, faculty members supervise and mentor the student. If it’s faculty-led research, obviously the faculty member is the primary researcher and the student is there to observe research practices and help as much as possible. Most often the student will have a mentor who is interested in the topic being researched and that creates a lasting connection for the mentor and student as they work together on something they’re both passionate about.”

In the past two years, 63.5 percent of USU faculty members have assisted undergraduate students with a research project, Feinauer said. Generally, faculty members and graduate research students are willing to help undergraduate students with their research.

“People have been reaching the point of being published authors of papers,” Mahamane said. “Now we have had two or three papers published with undergrads’ names on them, and I know we are working on one now. The undergrads are diving deeper and pairing up with graduate students in a kind of mentor to mentee relationship.”

USU has student researchers from every discipline and every field of study offered on campus. Undergraduate researchers have looked at topics from sexual assault and how socialization before the assault impacted feelings afterward, to children’s health and how their knowledge of food impacted their snack choices.

Researchers have also looked at projects involving synthetic spider silk, parasites, the Hawaiian Honeycreeper, the ecosystem at Strawberry Reservoir, various proteins and their structures, how teens socialize in high school and religion’s impact on an individual’s socialization.

“It’s important for students to participate in undergraduate research because it makes them stand out from their counterparts when applying for graduate school or for job opportunities,” Feinauer said. “Participating in undergraduate research also gives students a feel for what it’s like outside of the classroom, and it helps students understand more what they will do with their degree in the future. Participating in undergraduate research also gives students confidence and experience. It’s also just fun, and it’s fun for students to learn about something they enjoy and see it in a different way.”