Creating new knowledge and connecting it with practical outcomes is an integral part of the work of research institutions like the University of Arizona.
Similarly, for institutions that promote active engagement among the student body, opportunities around academic, social and professional growth are abundant.
One example at the UA of the convergence of applied knowledge creation and student engagement is the Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP, a 24-year-old model program that engages undergraduates in original research in the life sciences.
The Survey of Undergraduate Research, or SURE, survey, administered to undergraduate research students nationwide, indicates that UA students are overwhelmingly pleased with UBRP when compared with those at comparable science education programs across the country.
"Compared with other programs across the nation, our students feel they are getting more out of our program," said Carol Bender, director of UBRP and the Bravo! program, which is for international study and research.
SURE surveys are administered twice annually to students in programs funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation and others. Based on 21 measures in surveys dating back to 2008, UA students persistently indicate at a higher level that they feel they are gaining a strong research experience, are confident about their abilities to conduct and communicate original research, and feel they are part of a learning community.
Ursula Tooley, a UBRP student studying neuroscience, said she felt especially encouraged to apply to UBRP for the networking opportunities and the lab experience.
"I knew it was a prestigious program and very selective, and having a paid research experience was my ideal," said Tooley, an Honors College student and member of the UA's Down Syndrome Research Group.
Tooley also was attracted to UBRP because of its orientation, small group meetings and teachings on topics such as state and federal relations, grant funding, public relations, ethics, proposal writing and the publishing arena, among other topics.
"There have been some very, very interesting programs that I wasn't even aware of," Tooley said of her UBRP experience. "It's been pretty enlightening."
UBRP has long been considered a national model for engaging undergraduates in original research, and Bender produced a book chapter recently published by the Council on Undergraduate Research in "Undergraduate Research Offices & Programs: Models and Practices." The chapter detailed UBRP's origins, structure and successes.
"Undergraduate research is a good retention tool, and it is a good way of sharing how knowledge has an application," Bender said, adding that research also shows that students engaged in research show improvements in critical thinking skills, self-esteem and engagement on and off campus, among other things.
"The book was developed to show how undergraduate research can be done, and that everyone should be doing it – how you do it depends on your institution," said Bender, whose program is funded by a range of organizations, including HHMI, the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, the Beckman Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. UBRP also receives donor support through a fund managed by the UA Foundation.
At the UA, students accepted into the program must identify a faculty mentor, who then funds 50 percent of their research, with UBRP matching the other half. Students receive a summer orientation and training. Also, throughout the academic year additional programming and support is offered to aid them in their personal and professional development.
UBRP is open to students in any major, but applicants must "make a compelling argument in their application for how a research experience in a STEM field will contribute to their educational and career goals," Bender said. "This gives us the latitude to have a very diverse program – in students' interests and in students' backgrounds. That is the beauty of being at a big place like UA. All of the students' interests can be accommodated."
Likewise, Bender manages a Facebook page and monthly newsletter to which students submit articles. In this way, UBRP students not only learn the importance of communicating their scholarly work, but they are actively engaged in that process.
Another claim to success: UBRP enables faculty to work with highly talented undergraduate students, said Terry Matsunaga, a UA radiology professor who has worked with UBRP and Honors College student Samantha Luois, who is studying molecular and cellular biology and Spanish. In fact, Matsunaga has co-authored three published papers with Luois, and another is forthcoming.
"Often times, students want to go to medical school or pharmacy school but don't know what it means to do graduate work or don't know how to be an independent thinker," said Matsunaga, who added that he was fortunate enough to get undergraduate research experience while at the University of California, Berkeley.
"I think UBRP is good in the sense that it gives undergraduates the experience of what it is like to be in a research laboratory," he said. "I fully endorse the UBRP program."
Faculty who are involved with UBRP value the institutional investment in undergraduate research and, for some, the program provides otherwise foregone interaction with students. Others like Serrine S. Lau, who directs the UA's Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center, have been involved in the program for years.
"Training of future scientists involves reaching out to the students at an early point in their academic careers. The UBRP program is an extremely well-organized program that can facilitate this goal," said Lau, also a BIO5 Institute member and professor in the pharmacology and toxicology department in the College of Pharmacy. "There is a risk that comes with investing time and resources into training someone who has little to no experience in research, but in the end it all pays off."
Lau also noted that because UBRP is highly competitive, she has found that the students who have joined her lab "are excellent, diligent, and eager to learn. They are academically prepared and under the highly mentored environment they contribute substantially to our research program."
And the success of students extends beyond their time as undergraduate researchers.
UBRP students have gone on to earn nationally competitive awards, including the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships, Fulbright Fellowships and Barry Goldwater Scholarships. Likewise, in the history of the UA program, UBRP students and alumni have had more than 800 known co-authored papers published and have given more than 940 known presentations at scientific meetings and conferences across the U.S. and abroad.
Another UA student, Jonathan Ferng, became involved in research during the six-week Keep Engaging Youth in Science, or KEYS, internship at BIO5. It was then that Ferng learned about UBRP in 2011 and eventually began working with UA Regents' Professor Carol Barnes, the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute director.
Working with Barnes, Ferng is investigating the spatial and navigational functions of the hippocampus, a brain structure vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, recurrent major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has been monitoring the activity of hippocampal neurons called “place cells” that fire at discrete locations in an environment.
"The composite activity of several place cells creates a map of the environment. By achieving a better understanding of the healthy hippocampus, he and his collaborators hope to discover why a damaged hippocampus results in deficits in spatial memory," said Ferng, an Honors College student studying biochemistry and molecular and cellular biology.
"UBRP has cemented my love for science in an environment where I can grow both as an individual and as an intellectual," he also said.
"This program has given me the freedom to pursue interests outside of my major and to apply scientific knowledge learned in classes to real and valuable research," Ferng also said. "I have learned to be true to myself and others about how much responsibility I can handle before delivering subpar work, to treat others with kindness and respect in order to form an efficient and happy research group, and to get through failures and tiring work days as a family."