Number of undergrads in research rising

When Andrea Jacobs ’08 started volunteering at the Connecticut Mental Health Center last summer, she was initially apprehensive about her lack of previous research experience. But once there, she quickly learned the ropes.

Jacobs learned to inject test mice with chemicals, slice up pieces of their brains for examination and analyze the pieces for protein content — all to test a single chemical’s role in human depression.

Yale College students like Liz Broomfield ’08, pictured above, conduct a wide variety of independent science research projects in University laboratories.
Amy Ly
Yale College students like Liz Broomfield ’08, pictured above, conduct a wide variety of independent science research projects in University laboratories.

Jacobs said she became intrigued by mental health research after two family members began suffering from mental illnesses — but she only took an active interest in it after taking the class Methods in Behavioral Science last year.

“I felt like I got a really late start on research,” she said. “But my lab was really good about getting me up to speed. I’d never thought I’d be able to do some of the techniques that I routinely do now.”

Jacobs is just one of several hundred Yale undergraduates who devote their semesters or summers to scientific research every year. The number of students engaged in such research projects has been rising in recent years, faculty members interviewed said.

This surge in undergraduate research is not specific to Yale. Science magazine’s recent survey of 136 liberal arts colleges found that the number of undergraduate students engaged in research has risen by over 70 percent in the past decade.

But faculty have noticed that the trend may be even more pronounced at Yale — especially among underclassmen — as a result of recent University efforts to open up research opportunities to undergraduates, professors and administrators said.

Support systems for science-oriented underclassmen — such as programs that expose students to a variety of research opportunities early on — help draw Yalies into research projects, students and professors said.

“There’s been a cultural shift [in undergraduate research] over the last several years,” Associate Dean for Science Education William Segraves said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to create a culture in which faculty and students are thinking about undergraduate involvement in research as important.”

Fulfilling a requirement?

Students conducting independent research at the University fall into two broad categories, Coordinator of Undergraduate Research Douglas Brash said.

“There are those who are starting early because they are excited about research, and those who are doing it in junior or senior year to satisfy the senior thesis requirement,” he said. “In my experience, the groups are very different.”

Senior thesis requirements for science majors can be fulfilled through research projects instead of a paper — an option that Segraves said over 95 percent of science majors choose.

Research experience is also crucial to successful entry into any graduate-level scientific discipline, including medicine, which may cause some students to see it as a “pre-professional requirement,” Chemistry professor Charles Schmuttenmaer said.

But while many students interviewed said they see independent research as a stepping stone to higher-education opportunities — or even just a credit to get out of the way — some said they are interested in research for its own sake.

Brian Huskinson ’09 said he joined a lab in the School of Medicine’s neurosurgery department primarily out of personal interest. Huskinson said he cannot use his work with the medical school as material for his senior thesis, but still saw the job as an opportunity to broaden his academic horizons.

While some may initially approach a research opportunity as a career move, he said that most students, by putting in time and effort, eventually become personally invested in their research.

“You start to really care about it, no matter your reasons for getting into it,” Huskinson said.

While their reasons for getting into research and their subsequent experiences vary widely, most students interviewed said the work is rewarding.

Daniel Turner Evans ’08 — who works at the Reed lab in the Electrical Engineering Department — said the skills research teaches differ drastically from those taught in “recipe-style” science lab courses.

“What you learn in lab classes is very scripted, and there’s only one right outcome that you follow a set of steps to get,” he said. “At a research lab, you don’t have an answer — you’re finding it.”

The relationship between lab work and research is analogous to that between “make-believe” and “real life,” Schmuttenmaer said. Understanding the difference frees students from misconceptions — that research always produces results — and teaches them the importance of revising established patterns of thought.

A supportive environment

Students excited about research opportunities typically begin working in a lab well before senior year rolls around, facilitated by the breadth of financial opportunities available to interested undergraduates, Brash said.

Students can receive financial support for their research from individual faculty research grants, one of more than a dozen available individual fellowship programs or interdepartmental programs.

“Yale is very interested in strengthening its science and engineering and in giving students the chance to do original research,” Segraves said. “Few institutions have created an environment [for undergraduate research] as successfully as we have.”

The Dean’s Office for Science Education coordinates a Web site that lists research and funding opportunities for undergraduates, including a list of 800 faculty laboratories. The number of Yale students seeking opportunities at peer institutions and research facilities abroad has also increased in recent years because of the establishment of international fellowships, Segraves said.

At peer institutions such as MIT, which offers an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, and Harvard, which coordinates the Harvard College Research Program, there are organized systems for students to get involved in labs outside the classroom.

But at schools like Columbia and Princeton, research opportunities for undergraduates are less formally coordinated because there are no such umbrella organizations, officials said.

Two specific Yale programs allow freshmen to look into joining a lab as early as the summer after freshman year: the year-long Perspectives on Science curriculum for freshmen and the Science, Technology and Research Scholars — or STARS — fellowship.

Perspectives on Science is a course designed to give science-oriented freshman a broad overview of science research at Yale. The class provides a $4,000 stipend for enrollees to conduct in-depth research at a lab over the summer.

This year, the applicant pool was so strong that its faculty decided to add another 15 slots, bringing the course’s enrollment up to 75, Schmuttenmaer said.

The STARS fellowship provides select undergraduates with an integrated experience in research, course-based study and development of leadership skills.

In the past seven years, the University has added 100 slots to financial fellowships for science research, Segraves said.

Elizabeth Broomfield ’08, who works at the Reed lab, said the numerous supports available to research-oriented undergraduates make Yale distinctive.

“Because Yale has a predominant focus on undergraduates, there are far more opportunities for undergrads [in research],” she said. “There’s usually more responsibility given to undergraduates in labs, too.”

But other students said faculty members are less enthusiastic about having undergraduates in the lab and give them little responsibility.

Broomfield said many of her classmates told her that their roles as summer researchers involved busywork and required little original thought.

“As an undergrad, it’s very difficult to put in the amount of hours required for in-depth research — added to the fact that often, you just don’t have the training,” Huskinson said. “It’s extremely rare for you to get your own project.”

Despite these hurdles, dozens of undergraduates have published the findings of research conducted at Yale. As many as 60 to 75 papers citing Yale undergraduates as authors are published every year, Segraves said.

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