Why Undergraduate Research?

Rebello-webUndergraduate research is a learning activity that enriches a student’s undergraduate experience. Students report that participation in research, scholarship, or creative activity broadens and deepens their classroom learning and supports the development of a range of skills. Some of the benefits of undergraduate research are listed below, along with comments from UConn undergraduate researchers about their own experiences in these areas.

Developing mentoring relationships

Mentors play a critically important role in students’ research and creative experiences, challenging students to try new things and offering a window onto the thinking of an experienced researcher or practitioner. A mentor who knows you well can advise you about your undergraduate career and your next steps after graduation; s/he will also be able to write a more detailed letter of recommendation than a professor who knows you only in a classroom context.

What I appreciate about Dr. Vadas is that he critiqued my drafts the same way he would critique one of his peers or graduate advisees. He didn’t lower his standards for what he considered quality work because I was an undergraduate writing a proposal for the first time. Whenever I got frustrated along the way, he would offer words of encouragement and reflect on how long it took him to master grant writing. He taught me a lot of skills along the way that I will continue to use as I write more grants in graduate school and beyond. – Faye Koenigsmark ’15 (ENG), Environmental Engineering

Making a big campus feel smaller

Participation in research, scholarship, or creative activity can help you find your niche on campus. The close relationships that are developed through sustained work together give a sense of community to research groups, labs, and teams.

Many members of the Markus Lab have pursued highly complex and advanced projects of their own during their time in the lab, representing the environment that my mentor has created here. Additionally, there are many people who choose to participate in a group effort in a project team, allowing everyone to pursue research in their own way. This fosters a community within the lab: a close-knit group of people who are passionate about what they are doing. – Anonymous student (CLAS), Psychology

Changing your perspective on ignorance and failure

Scholarly inquiry has a way of putting all that you do not know into stark relief, while rarely working quite as expected. As you learn to think like a researcher, you begin to see ignorance and failure not as personal shortcomings but as opportunities to ask questions, reframe problems, and try new approaches.

When I first began lab research as an undergraduate, I held a somewhat simplistic or naive view of how research is conducted. With a starting scientific background comprised of lectures and readings, I went into research as a way to extend my interest in scientific explorations and in-depth discussion with scientists to better understand the biology of diseases. Influenced by the schematic world portrayed by textbooks, I initially believed everything could be reduced easily to its predictable components and causality – for example, that the knockout of a gene would certainly result in an observable phenotype. I realized quickly, however, that research could be frustratingly difficult, with plenty of failed experiments and unrealized hypotheses. The seemingly endless complexities of biological systems and my numerous failures were something I found to be very challenging. For guidance, I observed and talked to my PI and graduate students in the Knecht Lab at the University of Connecticut, trying to understand how they continue to be enthusiastic scientists despite the challenges. I learned that while the failure rate in their research was not much different from mine, their perspective on it was quite different. Where I saw problems, they saw opportunities. Where I saw complexity, they saw structure. I have since incorporated this perspective by trying to take each failure as a learning experience and to find new components in a web of interconnected knowledge. This makes me constantly motivated to pursue the next hypothesis with a better approach in my current and future research experiences. – Christopher Cheng ’14 (CLAS), Molecular and Cell Biology

Cultivating an understanding of research design and methodology

Hands-on experience conducting original research supports students’ understanding of how to design investigations, how to make appropriate methodological choices, and how to implement different techniques and methods.

Dr. Beck took my hand and showed me the way by exposing me to new research designs such as Reismann’s Method of Narrative Analysis. She gave me Ph.D. research studies using the same method of analysis to use as a guide for my own research. – Timothea Vo ’15 (NUR), Nursing
When I first approached Dr. Brenick in the fall semester of 2013, rather than having me work on one of her current projects and within the confines of her research interests, she listened to what I was passionate about and encouraged me to explore my own interests. Dr. Brenick assisted me in refining my broad interests into a strong and focused project. This initial work was so important for me because it helped me start to understand the research process. What started as a simple qualitative study using snowball sampling quickly grew into a mixed methods bilingual study at a local low-income elementary school. – Melissa Lovitz ’15 (CLAS), Human Development and Family Studies

Developing a range of transferable skills

While some of your learning will be research-specific, undergraduate research also develops transferable skills with broad application, including critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, and independence.

My project revolves around using genomic techniques to look into the effects of Estrogen and Estrogen-related compounds on cell differentiation/gene expression. Through this project I have acquired three valuable skill sets. The first is a set of laboratory skills that I can translate into my graduate work. The second is a set of computational/mathematical skills that have conjured a way of thinking critically and logically to allow me to ask and answer scientific questions in an effective manner. The last skill set and quite possibly the most important is the ability to communicate science not only to other researchers in the field but to the general public as well. I attribute the last skill set to the great guidance I have gained from my research mentors. – Robert Stickels ’15 (CLAS), Molecular and Cell Biology
I think the most important skills I have learned are critical thinking, independence, problem solving. I had A LOT of help from Dr. Kanadia and the graduate students of the Kanadia Lab, but I was the only person working on this project, and I was in charge of designing and performing the experiments necessary to complete my project. When something went wrong, I learned to troubleshoot the issue, or continue trying the experiment until it worked. I learned to analyze data on my own and form conclusions founded on fact rather than speculation. I also learned to elucidate my experiments and findings. – Laura Dellalana ’15 (CLAS), Biological Sciences

Exploring career and graduate education options

Undergraduate research and creative activity offer students opportunities to gain hands-on experience in fields of interest to them. This experience often prompts realizations about what kinds of work students enjoy most and what career paths they wish to pursue.

The UConn IDEA Grant had a large impact on my dramaturgical career. I now have the skills for both production dramaturgy and new play development. Also, originally I always thought I would want to work in repertory style theater, working on classic works, but now after having had the experience of working directly with a playwright I know I want to work in new play development. – Anna Woodruff ’14 (SFA), Theater Studies
Completing this research project helped me to become a better scientist. Undoubtedly, undergraduate research introduces you to a whole new realm in STEM fields that you are not exposed to in lab classes. Experiments do not always go as expected. Anomalies in data are seen as possible discoveries to be made instead of as pariahs within an otherwise orthodox set of data. My undergraduate research experience inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. instead of an M.D. as I originally intended. The research process made me more of a critical thinker and taught me perseverance. – Greg Thomson ’15 (CLAS), Molecular and Cell Biology
When I applied for the IDEA grant, I wanted to pursue a project that was unlike any of the classroom experiences I could gain at UConn. By working in the field that I am interested in pursuing a career in, I was able to gain valuable insight that I do not believe would have been possible otherwise…This project has helped me to realize how relevant and obtainable my future goals are. I have been very fortunate that I have learned what I am passionate about early on in my academic career so that I was able to tailor every possible opportunity at UConn towards my goals. – Jake Sippel ’14 (CLAS), Individualized Major