Engaging Minds

Undergraduate Research Growing at Wright State

Undergraduate researcher Jonathon Ali wants to wipe out pesky honeysuckle.

They are developing insect-sized aircraft. They are looking for ways to control invasive plants that choke out native species. They are working on preventing back injuries to military pilots and health care workers.
They are Wright State researchers—and they are only undergraduates.

Under the guidance of devoted faculty members, undergraduate research at Wright State is growing.

“Our faculty puts plenty into this,” said Provost Steven Angle. “They do it because they care about our students. They teach them how to think and how to address problems.”

Angle said conducting research enables students to see the relevance of what they are learning in class. “They catch fire,” he said. “In some cases, it’s like flipping a switch.”

And he said undergraduate research is not just for A students, but can also be for those who initially struggle a bit academically. “If you give them a chance to shine, sometimes they’re the most hardworking, the most creative. They make up for the classroom challenges they may lack in the beginning by working five times as hard,” he added.

The provost pointed out that in many cases, the role of faculty is to get students to believe in themselves, to dig deep and make that extra effort. “They amaze themselves. The faculty oftentimes knows the student is capable of this, but the student doesn’t know.”

Dominique Belanger, director of undergraduate research, said faculty members can make the experience. Many are eager to take young researchers under their wing and watch them grow. There are faculty members who would love to have more freshmen in their labs because some of the lab work doesn’t necessarily need to be preceded by classroom courses. “By the time they are seniors, they are independent researchers and may have gotten published,” Belanger explained.

Wright State’s multifaceted research programs mirror those of other universities around the country. At Northwestern University, undergraduates check and analyze data on depression and anxiety. They research oceanography and marine ecology at the College of William and Mary. And at the University of Wyoming, they use observatories to investigate star formation within the Milky Way.

Belanger said giving undergraduates the opportunity to conduct research enables them to apply what they learn in the classroom, likening the experience to adjusting the lens on a camera to the point where it all suddenly comes into focus. “It connects the dots,” she explained.

Dr. Goswami’s team

Tarun Goswami, joint associate professor of biomedical engineering and orthopaedic surgery, estimates he has overseen the research of 50 undergraduate students at Wright State over the past six years.

Goswami said the involvement of the faculty is critical at the beginning stages, but that the bulk of the work is done by students, who gain the experience. One of his students, Michael Robertson, used his undergraduate research as a springboard into medical school.

Michael Robertson

Robertson, Wright State’s 2010–11 Presidential Scholar and currently a first-year student at Wright State’s Boonshoft School of Medicine, investigated the stress on the neck’s vertebra, especially in trauma cases.

“Involvement in this research is one of the reasons that led me to medical school,” said Robertson, of Cincinnati.

In years past, faculty and graduate students conducted the lion’s share of research in higher education. But undergraduate research has grown tremendously over the past two decades, according to national undergraduate research conference studies.

“Campuses are realizing the benefits of undergraduate research in terms of student engagement,” said Nancy Hensel, former executive officer of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Undergraduate Research.

The council is composed of colleges and universities that have undergraduate research programs or are looking to start them. The organization currently has about 620 institutional members and 7,000 individual members, which represents a growth of roughly 40 percent over the past five years. Proponents believe using undergraduates to help conduct research enhances learning by basing it on inquiry, problem solving, and creative accomplishment, instead of acquiring knowledge passively.

Engineering, nursing, and science and mathematics at Wright State boast
strong undergraduate research programs. However, research projects have also sprung from the fields of art, psychology, and social work. And the performing
arts engage students in scholarly activity through plays, concerts, and other creative expression.

Suzanne Bock with her sculpture Aten. Photograph by Skip Peterson

Fine Arts student Suzanne Bock is an example of such research. She conducted her research in physics, studying light waves, the laws of reflection and refraction, and experimenting with ways to manipulate light through various transparencies. The result will be “Aten,” an angular, eight-foot-high sculpture that cocoons illuminated mirrors, creating a kaleidoscope effect.

“When I first came to Wright State, I knew I was going to attempt to combine sciences and art,” said Bock, of Fairborn. “Art is not really a stand-alone entity. It’s a reflection of our world and everything in it. It cannot exist in a vacuum.”

Wright State undergraduate Corrine Welch is creating 3-D medical images in order to detect the forces acting on the spine to help prevent spinal injuries. “I feel that I’m actually doing something with my major rather than just coming and studying all the time,” Welch said. “I actually get to be a part of helping people with my engineering skills.”

Don Cipollini, biology professor and director of the Environmental Sciences Ph.D. program, has three undergraduate researchers working under his guidance this year. “It is one of the most important hands-on learning experiences they will have,” Cipollini said. “Many of them will tell you they learned more in the process of doing the research than they did in class. This is a mechanism of teaching, and it does take a lot of time.”

Cipollini’s student researchers work not only in the lab, but in the greenhouse and the field as well. They must come up with ideas, write proposals, establish experimental designs, interpret data, write it up, and present it.

Student Jonathan Ali is working in Cipollini’s lab investigating the interactions and effect of invasive honeysuckle on native species. Invasive species can come to dominate parts of the ecosystem, suffocating the regeneration of native plants and trees and outcompeting more desirable plants that would increase the diversity of native species.

Invasive species are among the top three threats to biodiversity. They hurt agricultural and forest productivity and cost the nation an estimated $120 billion annually in control efforts and loss of productivity, according to Cipollini. Ali is investigating whether honeysuckle uses a kind of fungi in its roots that make it more competitive than native plants. That information could help restore native plants once the honeysuckle is removed.

Ali said the research has improved his scientific method and increased his interest in the field. “It is time consuming, but rewarding because I’m producing something,” he said.

According to Sherri Foster, “Undergraduate research will give me an edge against my peers, since many will not have the research background I will have.” Foster is researching musculoskeletal disorders in health care workers. “With the economy, everyone needs an edge right now,” she added. She then recalled that after settling on her research project, she realized, “Wow. We’re going to make an impact on something.”

Wright State senior Alex Woodward examines some invasive plants that are being grown for research in a lab on campus. Photograph by Skip Peterson

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