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UMW undergrads get chance to do original research
BY LINDLEY ESTES
The University of Mary Washington is known more for its liberal arts offerings than for scientific research. The midsized Fredericksburg university doesn’t have the research resources of institutions such as Virginia Tech or the University of Virginia.
But what UMW does have for undergraduates is the opportunity to do original research. Andrew Dolby, chairman of the biology department, said that at UMW students have greater access to the full range of research experiences and are individually mentored by faculty. At larger schools, those opportunities are limited to graduate students.
“Undergraduate research is one of our greatest strengths,” Dolby said. “It benefits students because it prepares them exceptionally well for graduate and professional school. They already understand research when they begin graduate work.”
The science-related departments are not the only areas of UMW doing original research. Faculty-led research is available in any discipline offered by UMW.
Students presented original research at UMW’s science institute symposium in July and at larger conferences. Among the 22 presentations on campus were investigations into the emerging field of “click chemistry,” which seeks to create substances such as energy by joining small units together with no offensive byproducts, and the effects of herbicides on the endocrine system of zebra fish.
Another presentation on atomic and astronomical spectroscopy—the study of electromagnetic radiation of celestial bodies—focused on how to perform research at a small university despite monetary constraints. Student Lauren Nelson, mentored by physics professor Hai Nguyen, found that relatively inexpensive tools can yield useful results.
Dolby said that for a small university, UMW has surprisingly sophisticated research instruments such as multiple electron microscopes and 200 acres off U.S. 17 in Stafford devoted to environmental research.
Dolby will mentor two undergraduate students this year. His research is on refining the tools that ornithologists use to study stress in birds. He hopes to help the scientific and conservation communities better understand how factors such as habitat disturbance affect birds.
Cole Eskridge, an alumnus working toward a doctorate in entomology and insect science at the University of Arizona, said UMW prepared him well for graduate school.
“In fact, during my graduate school interviews I was told multiple times by professors here at the University of Arizona that they preferred working with students from smaller liberal arts schools because they tended to be much better communicators than students from large research-focused institutions,” he said.
At UMW, Eskridge worked with professor Teresa Grana on nematode, or roundworm, diversity research.
“Nematodes are one of the most bountiful organisms on the planet, yet science has only scratched the surface of their species diversity,” Eskridge said. “So it was our goal to go out into the field, isolate as many nematodes as possible and add their genetic sequences to the already existing data bank of DNA.”
He said that he thinks his research at UMW was graduate school quality. Eskridge presented research three times as an undergraduate, twice at UMW and once at the national meeting of Chi Beta Phi, a science honor society.
“There are just so many things I got out of my education that my friends who chose other institutions didn’t get,” he said. “Pretty much we all chose biology as a major; however, none of my friends had any relationship with their professors in a way that mimicked what we have at Mary Wash. Our classes also pushed us a lot more to develop proper presentation skills, so much so that I’ve never had any real anxiety speaking in front of groups of people.”
He said the only drawback of researching at UMW was access to funding.
TASK FORCE FORMED
During the 2011–2012 academic year, the provost’s office created an undergraduate task force to study the state of research at UMW and make recommendations for the future. The task force, composed of faculty members involved in undergraduate research, found that every department on the Fredericksburg campus has the ability to participate in undergraduate research with their majors. Most departments encourage such projects, though only a few require original research.
The group recommended in May that UMW should make a clear statement of the importance of undergraduate research and put in place an office of grants and research to make their commitment sustainable.
Virginia Tech had 3,522 undergraduate students engaged in research last academic year, or 61.8 percent of the graduating class, said John Pastor, communications director for research. U.Va. reported about 197 students enrolled in for-credit independent research per semester in the biology department, a major undergraduate research component. There are about 600 biology majors at the university. Of the college of arts and sciences undergraduate class of spring 2011, about two thirds completed undergraduate research projects.
At the College of William and Mary, whose model for education is more akin to UMW’s, undergraduate research is also a priority. According to the college’s website, 70 percent of undergraduates engage in mentored research with a faculty member or take a course in which research is a primary component.
The percentage for mentored research with a faculty member was not available. However, Joseph McClain, director of research communications, said anecdotal evidence for student involvement in faculty-led research is very strong.
“It is essential to the William and Mary way of educating people,” he said.
Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976