UW News

February 4, 2010

UW undergraduate research: Everything from bioengineering to dance

Editor’s Note: This is part three of University Week’s four-part series describing the work of the Center for Experiential Learning. A part of Undergraduate Academic Affairs, the center includes seven programs that deal with student learning experiences beyond the classroom. This week we offer a look into undergraduate research.

Alyssa Sheih has been involved with undergraduate research since the day that she started at UW. As an incoming freshman, she was a NASA Space Grant recipient. With that scholarship came the opportunity for hands-on research.

“I started with relatively simple stuff,” said Sheih, “but it was all stuff I had never done before.”

Sheih, now a senior, is currently studying cell-based therapy for neurodegenerative disease. She spends much of her time in Benson Hall, the chemical engineering building, developing a non-viral gene delivery method for safe and efficient transfection of T-cells.

The Undergraduate Research Program at UW is part of the Center for Experiential Learning.

“It’s a way for undergraduates to extend what they learn in class,” said Janice DeCosmo, director of undergraduate research, “and to develop their own ideas.”

The research opportunities are available for all students, not just those in the sciences.

“Our hands-on research opportunities are all over the map — from bioengineering to dance,” said Jennifer Harris, associate director of undergraduate research.

No matter the student’s major or career objectives, he or she can likely find a faculty member with a research project that relates.

“Participating in research really expands a student’s knowledge about his or her discipline and what people in that field do,” said DeCosmo.

“I’ve learned a lot outside of what my classes could teach me,” said Sheih. “My experiences with undergraduate research put me in the direction I want to go—studying immunology in grad school.”

Often, undergraduates are unsure of how to get involved with research.

“Most students don’t have research experience when they come to UW,” said Harris. “The idea can seem a little intimidating, so we demystify what faculty are looking for. Faculty want students with a spark, who show enthusiasm and reliability. The undergraduate doesn’t need to have prior research experience to get involved.”

Generally, research experiences are a two-to-three-quarter commitment.

“That spark is what will sustain students through the whole year,” continued Harris. “Often it takes at least a quarter for the student to get up to speed with what is going on. It isn’t as glamorous as the little blurbs on our Web site make it sound. There’s a lot of nitty-gritty to research, but it opens students up to experiences they never would have had.”

Since research is a significant commitment, students should make sure they find a project that is perfect for them.

“When we work with helping undergraduates apply for various research opportunities, we tell them it’s more about finding the right fit than selling yourself. The better the fit, the more likely the student will stick around and the more he or she will get out of the experience,” said Harris.

The Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium is a chance for students who are interested in getting involved to learn about the various research opportunities on campus.

“Last year, almost 700 undergraduate students presented at the symposium,” said Harris. It’s the perfect chance for students to see what’s possible. It is also great for the students presenting.”

The day is very celebratory and it’s another learning opportunity for presenters.

“Our undergraduate researchers learn how to communicate their work, or translate it to an audience. They should explain what they did in a way that is understandable, but not dumbed down,” Harris added.

At the symposium, students present their projects either orally or through posters.

The 2010 symposium is Friday, May 21. The deadline for applying to present is Feb. 22 at 5 p.m.

For students interested in learning more about research, there is also a seminar, Research Exposed: Approaches to Inquiry. It is a one-credit class that meets weekly. At each session, a different faculty member speaks about current research and answers student questions. The public is also welcome to sit in on the class.

There are many opportunities for undergraduates to get involved with research at UW.

“I would tell other undergrads to go out and find faculty that interest them and don’t be shy! Knock on their door,” said Sheih. “It’s exciting to work on and research things that people haven’t discovered yet. … Through undergraduate research, you really are making a contribution.”