For Aspiring Undergrad Researchers, UA is the Place to Be

Many opportunities are available for undergraduates who want to try their hands at research – in the natural sciences as well as in arts, humanities and the social sciences.
Aug. 30, 2010
Physiology junior Amanda Urbina investigates ways of using adult stem cells obtained from patients to repair damaged joints.
Physiology junior Amanda Urbina investigates ways of using adult stem cells obtained from patients to repair damaged joints.

Amanda Urbina started her junior year last week, but she already finds herself at the forefront of biomedical science – not as part of a required class, but participating in an actual research project.

"My research focuses on regenerating cartilage damaged by injuries that lead to osteoarthritis," said Urbina, who since her freshman year has worked in the laboratory of John A. Szivek, director of orthopedic research at the Arizona Arthritis Center in the University of Arizona's College of Medicine.

"I work with adult stem cells derived from the fat tissue of patients, which can be transformed into cartilage cells and placed back into a patient's joint," Urbina said.

Participating in research offers many benefits, said Glenda Gentile, who heads the Office of Undergraduate Research, housed in the UA's College of Science.

"It helps students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, hone their team-working and communication skills and helps connect them to a network of professionals in their field," Gentile said.

"But I feel that one of the greatest rewards of undergraduate research is the opportunity to use information learned in the classroom and apply it to a real world problem and possibly discover a new piece of information," she added.

According to Carol Bender, director of the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP, the program in which Urbina participates, the UA offers unusually good opportunities for undergraduates to get involved in cutting-edge science.

UBRP is open to students of any major, and they can apply as early as their freshman year.

"Our faculty members are exceptionally open to involving undergraduate students in research," Bender said.

How to get started

An excellent starting point is the Office of Undergraduate Research website. Not only does it provide a wealth of information and access to databases, but it also provides answers to questions such as "How do I know research is right for me?" "How can I find out about research opportunities in my department?" and "How should I contact a faculty member in whose research I'm interested?"

"Students interested in trying their hand at a research project should talk to the undergrad adviser and faculty in their major," Gentile said.

"We especially want to encourage the younger students to discover what they can do to learn a piece of knowledge no one has had before," she added.  "Many who have taken advantage of research opportunities later say this was the best experience of their undergrad years."

The website provides students with a step-by-step process to access information that will assist them in finding research opportunities, including those in science, technology, engineering and math, but also in broader university-wide programs. 

The site has a searchable database with information on UA faculty members interested in working with undergraduate students. The idea to create the database and centralize information about UA research opportunities came from Gail Burd, former associate dean of the UA College of Science and now vice provost of academic affairs and a distinguished professor of molecular and cellular biology.

The website also provides students with easy-to-use search tools to help them find research opportunities that best meet specific career goals or help them decide which discipline is right for them.

Interested students should keep in mind that most of the programs linked to the website are specific to undergrads, not for those who already have graduated.

Another good starting point is BioGate, the UA's life sciences database, which can be searched for potential faculty mentors according to research areas and keywords.

Before approaching a faculty member about research opportunities, it is necessary to do some homework, Bender said.

"Find out what faculty members are doing in their fields and identify those whose interests coincide with your interests," is her advice to undergraduates interested in spending some time doing research in addition to attending classes.

"Sending off mass e-mails won't cut it," she said. "Students need to be able to articulate their reasons for wanting a research experience. They should be able to explain how a research experience ties in with their career goals before they contact potential faculty mentors."

Opportunities open to many majors

The services offered by the Office of Undergraduate Research are available to students of any major.

Just like in the natural sciences, the first step for prospective student researchers in the arts, humanities and social sciences is to talk with their departmental advisers and faculty members, Gentile said.

Another, lesser-known option is to pursue an undergraduate research scholarship awarded through the UA's Honors College. Students do not have to be enrolled as an honors student to be eligible.

"Our scholarships have supported classical guitar studies, history, social science and visual arts projects, social sciences, creative writing – it's really all over the map," said Karna Walter, director of nationally competitive scholarships at the Honors College. "Applications to our program are reviewed by a multidisciplinary panel of students and faculty members."

Undergraduate research scholarships through the Honors College come with a stipend of $1,500. With about one out of two applications getting funded, the odds of scoring a stipend are pretty good. Applications are due in March. Students perform their research over the summer, write up project report in the fall and present their results in the spring.

NASA's Space Grant program is another option. Its scope is not limited to astronomy and space science, but is very broadly defined and includes journalism.

Time is of the essence

"Planning is the key to success," Gentile said. "Start the process early. You can't start thinking in April about what you would like to do in the summer. Most undergraduate research program deadlines are in January or February."

Applications to UBRP's summer research program open Oct. 15 and must be made online.

"The deadline for the summer 2011 UBRP positions is Feb. 1, 2011, but don't wait until January to think about your application," Bender said.

In addition to their primary research stint over the summer, UBRP students can continue working year-round if they can spare 15 hours per week. More than 80 percent of them do, underscoring the positive experience they obtain through the program.

"It takes a while to learn the skills," Bender said, "and the longer a student does research, the more benefits he or she gains from the experience." 

Gentile reminds students wishing to gain scientific experience of a number of opportunities available outside the UA campus.

"The competition gets steeper because students apply from all over the country," she said. "But these programs can be especially rewarding, taking people to places and institutions they would have never had a chance to work at otherwise."

In addition to the programs mentioned above, many opportunities exist that cater to under-represented minority students such as the Minority Access to Research Careers, or MARC, Program. Together with UBRP, they are among those helping UA students to present their data at scientific conferences across the nation. Listings can be found on the Office of Undergraduate Research's website.

Multiple ways to get involved

Facing a jungle of programs, scholarships and initiatives, it is important to not overlook other opportunities that exist for those looking to check in with their inner scientist.

"In addition to structured undergraduate research programs, there are individual faculty members who hire undergrads to do research on a specific project," said Gentile. "Students can participate in research a number of ways. They can do it for credit or they can volunteer."

"Volunteering in a lab is a good way to get started," Bender added. "Many researchers who don't teach undergraduate classes or don't have funding available say they find mentoring a student very rewarding because it builds a relationship."

"Professors and teaching assistants have a lot of knowledge about research opportunities," is Urbina's advice to students interested in pursuing research on their own.

"Find out if they're looking for someone to join their lab. Look online at the information for different professors in your major or what you're interested in, and then write to them," she said. "The summer programs, too, have a lot to offer. UBRP provided me with a lot of resources that I wouldn't even have known about."

"I found out that I really do love research," she added, "and even though it sounds old, what drives me is that you can use it to better someone's life."