Monday, February 21, 2011

Next Steps for Undergraduate Researchers

In my last post, I wrote about the undergraduate teaching I've been doing this year, and about my attempts to guide interested students along the path to careers in research. The other ORDER Teacher-Scholars and I serve as role models by talking about our personal journeys to graduate school alongside our research findings. In addition, we try to design lectures and classroom activities that will be helpful to our students outside the context of this course. We also provide group and individual mentoring for students pursuing their own research interests.

I've been thinking a lot about where our students might go after completing our seminar. How can we help them apply what they've learned? Can they aspire to something more than just an 'A' on their transcripts? Can our class help them add a line or two to their CVs? In that vein, here are some of the goals that I've encouraged my students to pursue.

Undergraduate Research

This seems a little redundant, given the title of my post, but not all of our students are currently engaged in research on campus. Last semester, the students were all first years, so they hadn't the opportunity to get involved in research yet. By structuring our course around our own research process and requiring the freshmen to design and carry out their own projects, we tried to empower them to think of themselves as researchers and scholars.

Since the end of the fall semester, I've had five students (out of 18) contact me with questions about finding a lab. I've written letters of recommendation for summer research programs, encouraged students to apply for Emory's SIRE and SURE fellowships, provided lists of Emory faculty working in various fields, and even helped one student join my adviser's lab. I'm very pleased with this outcome. Although the majority of the credit surely goes to the high-achieving students themselves, I like to think that the mentoring we provided had at least some impact on students seeking out research opportunities.

Education and Outreach

Each student in the ORDER seminar formulates a group or individual research project. In addition to writing papers about their findings, the students are required to integrate a "creative component" into presentations of their work. Last semester, students made videos, wrote and performed original songs (with costumes and choreography!), and acted out skits to convey the key points of their research to an audience of their peers. We also encouraged them to think about how they might convey their work to other audiences, like K-12 students or the general public. In class, I've promoted programs like Brain Awareness Week, where students can use their creative presentation skills to engage kids in discussions of neuroscience. I tell my students that this kind of outreach is important for scientists who depend upon public interest to fund their work, and that volunteering in an area related to your field also looks good on your CV.

Last semester's students will soon be participating in an event for high schoolers who are considering an Emory education. They will present their original research projects and answer questions from the visiting students. I haven't heard whether any of them have been motivated to volunteer off campus as a result of the class, but maybe they'll be more inclined to do so next year, when they're allowed to have cars!


Most scientists scoff at the thought of publishing a paper after only a semester's worth of work on a project. (Although, I do know a few lucky grad students who were able to publish the results of their rotation projects!) For an undergraduate, though, a semester-long research project is a substantial achievement, and many of our students are interested in learning how to publish their results. This semester, one student also asked me about publishing a lengthy review-style article that he wrote for a previous class.

I identified a couple of journals in my field that would be appropriate venues for this kind of work. The Journal of Young Investigators publishes scientific research articles, reviews, editorials, and features. They also sponsor a snazzy virtual poster presentation contest:

For students particularly interested in neuroscience, there's also Impulse, an undergraduate journal of neuroscience.

Both of these journals feature peer review by other undergraduates under the supervision of faculty sponsors. While most submissions are eventually accepted, students submitting to the journals will still go through a dialogue with the editors and typically make a round or two of revisions. It's a good introduction to the publication process, and it provides another way for students to get credit for the high level of work that we ask of them in class.


This semester, we're having our upper-level undergraduates write mock funding proposals. Many of the science students have shown an interest in NSF Graduate Research Fellowships or NIH Intramural Research Training Awards. We hope that by asking our students to design research projects and write them up in a grant-style format (including a background and significance section, a research strategy and timeline, and a personal statement), we can prepare them to actually submit these sorts of proposals.

When I was an undergraduate, I didn't even know that these funding sources existed. Learning about them will definitely give our students an advantage. But, grant writing is hard, and it has been challenging for me to mentor a diverse group of students who are all at different stages in the research process. Some have already spent years working on a project in an Emory lab, while others aren't sure what kind of graduate program interests them the most (a few haven't even picked an undergraduate major!). I'm trying to set reasonable expectations for my students, given that many of them have never attempted anything like this before. But, I also want to make sure they understand that in order to get a proposal funded, they will have to work hard, revise a lot of drafts, and read more than a handful of primary sources.

I hope that I'll be able to report back later this year with an update about what our students have achieved! I've been putting a lot of effort into teaching (to my adviser's occasional chagrin...), and perhaps my ambitious goals are a result of the newbie's rose-colored glasses. But, I'm having fun. Last week I met with a small group of students to talk about their grant proposals. When class time had run out, several of them stayed late to continue our conversation. One told me that she didn't want to leave because this was her favorite class. I never get that kind of feedback from mice in the lab!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Undergraduate Researchers: What's Their Next Step?

I've written before about my participation in a teaching fellowship called On Recent Discoveries by Emory Researchers (ORDER), but I wanted to reflect a little more on my experiences working with the talented undergraduates in these classes. Because I want to preserve my students' privacy/anonymity, I'll be discussing them and their research projects in fairly general terms. But, I will say that I have been consistently impressed with my students. I'm privileged to be a mentor for them as they pursue their academic goals.

The cool thing about ORDER is that it's interdisciplinary. Last fall, ORDER fellows (we're actually called "Teacher-Scholars" in official ORDER materials) taught a first year seminar for the incoming class of INSPIRE students. This meant that most of our class had an interest in the sciences, and some had even pursued scientific research experiences in high school. Even so, when they were asked to devise independent research projects as part of the course, the students created and tested hypotheses that spanned the social sciences as well as the biological sciences. Several of them also decided to take classes in the social sciences and humanities after completing our course. This was at least in part because of the research shared by Teacher-Scholars from the Department of Sociology and the Graduate Division of Religion, as well as the students' own inquiries into non-science topics.

This semester, my ORDER cohort is teaching a similar course for upper-level undergraduates in multiple disciplines. (The seminar is cross-listed in: Chemistry, Biology, Neurobiology and Behavior, Physics, Psychology, Religion, Sociology, and Theatre Arts!) Our students are more advanced than last semester's freshmen. Most are currently pursuing research and/or have decided that they are interested in postgraduate education. Many of them have been supported up until this point by the awesome undergraduate research programs at Emory. They are so awesome, in fact, that there are YouTube videos documenting them!

Programs like Scholarly Inquiry and Research at Emory (SIRE) support undergrads working in all majors, not just the sciences. I know of many universities that have scientific research opportunities for students, either during the summer or the academic year, but it seems less common for disciplines like sociology. So, I think it's really cool that Emory is supporting research by students like Kristen Clayton:

By providing a pool of funds dedicated to undergraduate researchers, SIRE allows all students to access a research experience. This is crucial — some faculty might not be able or willing to pay an undergrad from their own funds, and many students don't have the financial luxury of taking an unpaid position. SIRE also provides training in communication skills, research ethics, and other important areas that students will need to master for a successful career.

In working with these students (not just SIRE fellows, although I think the presence of the program encourages more Emory undergrads to get involved in research in general), I've been thinking more about how the other Teacher-Scholars and I can prepare them to take the next step in their research careers. How can we help them use their Emory experiences as a jumping-off point for their graduate and professional education? Pondering this has forced me to think outside my own areas of expertise — I'm responsible for mentoring neuroscientists, but also chemists, sociologists, humanists, artists, and students who still haven't made up their minds about what they want to do.

In my next post, I'll share a couple of the ideas that I've come up with (in collaboration with other members of the ORDER program). In the mean time, I'd be interested in hearing ideas from the peanut gallery of the academic blogosphere. How would you approach this kind of class? What do you wish you'd known when you were preparing to graduate from college, and how can I convey that information to my students?