On the Undergraduate Research Experience: Student and Professor Perspectives

Nathalie Petit | Assistant Editor

College is a place for experimentation and experience. Juggling classes, jobs, and student organizations, there is no limit to getting involved at UT; and many students have turned to research as another avenue of exploration.

The University of Texas currently ranks as number thirteen among U.S. universities for scientific research publication according to Nature Index, and although students can be overwhelmed and unclear as to where to start, there are different paths towards getting involved in research.

“I was surprised to find a research position that didn’t necessarily coincide with my business major,” said sophomore Francisca Guerrero. “I like that I’m able to actively use my fluency in Spanish when speaking to participants in our study.”

Guerrero is a research assistant for Project SEED, which analyzes the stress levels among Mexican-American children who translate for their parents.

“Being part of this research group has made me realize how much work is involved, almost like a full-time job,” Guerrero said. “It’s taught me how to be more effective at communicating with others, especially with participants for our study and my team members. I feel like I’m making a real impact that could affect our society someday.”

There are many benefits to participating in undergraduate research, and it is never too early or too late to start this process. Research experience allows students to learn the process of science and how to develop inquiry skills as opposed to learning about such methods in class or from a textbook.

The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) is a way to gain experience and mentorship from a UT research educator in a small- classroom setting and enables students to carry out their own projects while learning experimental design and data analysis.

Biology sophomore, Janet Le, believed that her FRI experience propelled her into being more confident about doing research.

“Having had no prior exposure to science fair or any opportunity to work on and present my own projects, this was a great learning experience,” Le said. “As someone who is studying human biology, I thought that it was cool how my stream focused heavily on DNA mutations and proteins.”

Through research experience, students can gain firsthand knowledge about their major and possible industries towards which they may be interested in joining. Exposure allows students to develop passions for career fields and learn if they enjoy doing research.

Le, who also spent the summer doing research agreed that she is able to apply the concepts that she learned during her FRI stream to her current research position at the Dell Medical Center.

“My research experiences have been a chance to learn about relevant concepts outside of the classroom and how they apply to the real world,” Le said. “I have been wanting to go to medical school for a few years now and gaining insight into how research can be used to develop advancements in medicine is part of what is keeping me motivated to stay on the premed track.”

Students may be initially frustrated once they begin doing research, expecting certain outcomes and unsure as to what they should do once they get stuck on a problem. However, failure is part of the learning process.

Dr. Juliana Duncan, clinical professor and FRI research educator, explained the importance of this way of thinking and said, “When students start a research project and produce weird results, they’ll question where they went wrong and if the science is telling them something that they can’t understand.”

“I want students to learn how to be confident in their results, interpret them, and communicate them to the rest of the world in a way that is not targeted towards a niche audience in their research area. The authentic research experience is hitting the wall, overcoming the barrier, and figuring out your next steps. That’s when you really get to know the science you’re doing.”

Her advice for students who do not know where to start or how to get involved is to reach out.

“Email professors,” she said. “Don’t feel bad if someone says no, and when you do get that opportunity, fail as much as you can. In research you have to try, fail, and repeat. It’s a powerful thing once you figure this out.”

Featured image from Analytics India Magazine. 

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