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Students realize true passions through research

Published: Friday, February 17, 2012

Updated: Friday, February 17, 2012 12:02


MITCH DABLING, A JUNIOR is majoring in civil engineering demonstrates the latest model of a notched labyrinth as part of his undergraduate research at the Utah Water Research Laboratory. CODY GOCHNOUR photo


Though most students dread doing research, others seek it out.

Research is a major part of the lives of students who participate in USU's undergraduate research program.  

"Undergraduate research is all about discovery," said Scott Bates, associate vice president of graduate and undergraduate research. "It's about identifying unanswered questions and solving them. What the program is really about (is) getting students outside of their classrooms to do the stuff that connects their coursework together and builds skills that everyone is demanding. It gives them a chance to become real scholars."  

The undergraduate research program encourages students to work outside the classroom on projects they feel passionate about.

Through the Office of Undergraduate Research, a student can be paired with professors working on research the student find interesting, or the student can carry out his or her own project with a professor as a mentor.

"We want undergraduates to have the kind of opportunities that a research institution like USU can provide," Bates said. "We can provide our students these resources and skill sets that cannot be offered at other universities."

USU has the second-oldest undergraduate research program and one of the most prestigious programs in the nation, Bates said.

The goal of the undergraduate research office is to help students find projects that interest them, and help them obtain funding for their work, he said.

"We have projects for every interest," Bates said. "Once students find something they're interested in, the next step is to find a mentor. Our office can help with that and help students connect with mentors and organizations that will support and help them."

"Traditional classrooms can be great," said Kristina Sorensen, an undergraduate researcher majoring in applied mathematics. "But they don't always have a lot of real-world application."

Sorensen said undergraduate research opened doors that helped her discover a passion for academia.

"I always knew I loved music, and I loved math, but I could never find a way to merge them together," the senior said.

A year ago, Sorensen said she joined the research project of Professor Tim Doyle, in which he uses ultrasound technology to examine cancer pathologies.

"I absolutely love the work I'm doing," she said. "You get to be so much more creative than you do in the classroom."

Passion was not all Sorensen found through undergraduate research, she said she also found a mentor she could work closely with and learn from.

"It has been amazing to work with a professor who has encouraged and believed in me and my ability to conduct this research," she said.

Neal Hengge, a sophomore majoring in biological engineering, said he found a way to apply his interests to research, when he joined a project focusing on microbiology and using bacteria to produce products that can be useful to industry and society.

"It's a huge problem in the world today," he said. "Oil reserves are going to run dry. Our research is creating an energy source that could possibly be a solution to this."

Hengge said the strong undergraduate research program at USU was a factor in his decision to enroll.

"I'd worked in labs in high school, but I never knew anything about microbiology before I started working on the research project," he said. "Now it's what I'm looking at specializing in in the future."

Hengge said he encourages students to be interested in what they're doing and talk to other professors. He said research can be a chance for students to focus their interests and engage with other students and professionals who have similar interests.

Bates said there are also numerous opportunities for students to share their work, such as through the "Research on Capitol Hill" program and by publishing papers in the USU undergraduate research journal, called Discover.

"For me, it's really exciting," said Allison Fife, a freshman majoring in history and economics. "Sometimes I feel like my project is solving a mystery."

Fife is an example of how undergraduate research can extend beyond the sciences, which most typically think undergraduate research projects fall into. Fife's project focuses on researching the background of Peter Van der Pas, a Dutch man who donated a large collection of rare books to USU.

"I'm learning all about this man's life, and then trying to place it in a broader historical context and see what we can learn from a man who experienced huge world events like World War II," she said.

For students interested in getting involved in undergraduate research, Bates said he encourages them to connect and talk to their professors, both about how they can join their projects or about their own interests for research. He encourages students to get involved in the undergraduate research program to develop skills that will make them valuable employees and scholars in the future.

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