Undergraduate research in full swing

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By Matt Olson

This past Thursday, Sept. 26, the first round of undergraduate research grants were due to the Committee on Undergraduate Research.

Biochemistry Professor Kristin Fox is the head of the committee, and has been in the position for six years. She said decisions on grants will be revealed tomorrow, Oct. 4.

The undergraduate research grant at Union is designed to help students who are designing research projects for course credit (a thesis, for example). “The main part of the proposal is to explain why your project is interesting,” Fox said. “You also want to be as specific as you can about how much money you think you need and what it will be used for.”

Fox said that around 60 students submitted research proposals for approval. The Committee on Undergraduate Research consists of Fox, as well as a faculty representative from the four divisions of disciplines: Andy Burkett, Division I (Humanities); Tomas Dvorak, Division II (Social Sciences); Scott Kirkton, Division III (Sciences and Mathematics); and Becky Cortez, Division IV (Engineering).

There is also a Student Research Grant Committee, which consists of Fox, Sandy Wimer (Visual Arts), George Bizer (Psychology), Roman Yukilevich (Biology) and David Hodgson (Mechanical Engineering).

For many students, particularly in the sciences, research is one of the first in-depth activities one has within the discipline. Many sophomore and junior science students work under a senior thesis student in a practicum class. Practicums are “a way for students to get their feet wet,” Fox explained. “And, it’s not a big time commitment, so it’s an easy way for a student to see how research is conducted.” Practicum courses in the sciences usually consist of around four hours of lab work weekly.

Fox agreed that individual research has its advantages over traditional lab work as a part of a lab-science course. “In a lab setting, the professor has tested the experiment several times and knows about how long it should take for the student to collect product,” she said. “In terms of research, the answer isn’t always known prior to the experiment. We don’t always know what’s going to happen.”

Fox’s research investigates the proteins involved with cell death. She currently has four students working directly with her, two are thesis students and two are practica students.

Associate Professor of Physics Chad Orzel agrees with Fox about the “unknowns” of research. “In a research lab, the goals and how to meet them are not quite so clearly defined as in a three-hour lab,” he explained. “The problems are much more open-ended, and the solutions are not well defined, and that’s a major difference from course work.”

Orzel, as a physicist, works on atomic, molecular and optical physics. Orzel, as a physicist, works on atomic, molecular and optical physics.

“I have a lab in the basement of S&E where we’ve been working on trapping and cooling krypton atoms as a means of evaluating background contamination in next-generation detectors for rare subatomic particles of interest to astrophysicists,” he explained.

Although science research is a integral part of the research program at Union, other disciplines conduct equally difficult and rewarding research. Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy Chalmers Clark said, “Research, philosophically speak- ing, is not heavily data-driven as much as conceptual.”

“While there is the inherent value of greater clarity that comes of fine grained critical analysis, ‘conceptual research’ also fosters carefully reasoned speculation regarding what might be possible.”

Fox stated that Union students, or undergraduate students at any other liberal arts college for that matter, play a greater role in research than students at larger research universities.

“I went to a liberal arts college and have seen both sides of it. Union students play a larger role in the research than students at a research university. For most universities, the graduate and post-doc students are in charge. Here, the undergraduate plays a much more central role,” she said.

This is not the last round of undergraduate proposal deadlines for fall term. The Undergraduate Research Program will be accepting grants again until Thursday, Nov. 7, and will again accept them winter term until Jan. 30.

Clark explained that research projects are a way to develop analytical skills not only in the discipline in which the research is conducted, but throughout disciplines.

­­“Such [critical thinking] skills translate effectively into virtually all forms of inquiry,” he said.

Orzel agreed: “There’s really no better way to pick up the somewhat nebulous set of skills that get lumped together as ‘critical thinking’,” he said. “You learn to draw conclusions based on evidence, make plans for new experiments, refine those plans based on further results and present those results to others in the field.”

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