Students Travel Off Campus to Find Research Opportunities
More and more institutions are sending undergraduates off campus - to industry, a government laboratory, another college or university - to do research.
Science faculty members know that one of the best ways to teach undergraduates is to get them involved in research projects. What happens, however, if students can't find such an opportunity on campus?
The answer is that more and more institutions are sending students off campus--to industry, a government laboratory, another college or university--to do research. "The opportunities for undergraduates to do research off campus have exploded over the past 10 years," said John Stevens, director of the Council on Undergraduate Research, which tracks undergraduate research participation.
Most students still do their research in campus laboratories, but the trend toward off-campus research is being driven by a "paradigmatic shift," according to Joseph G. Perpich, vice president for grants and special programs at HHMI. "An increasing number of companies want to recruit students who have off-campus experience," he said.
Students are also realizing that non-academic work experience can help them find future employment, especially in view of the tight academic job market, he said. Students also want to be challenged. For example, Tara Gupta, a recent graduate of Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, had known for a long time that she wanted a research career, but she was having trouble finding a niche at Colgate that matched her interest in pharmacology. "Since high school that's what I've wanted to study," she said. Gupta was one of several students who described their experiences at HHMI's most recent undergraduate program directors meeting.
Near the end of her sophomore year, Gupta applied to a Colgate program, now funded in part by the Institute, that provides research opportunities for students. Each fall, 12 to 16 Colgate students move to Bethesda, Maryland, for a semester of research in the laboratories of NIH investigators. A faculty member from Colgate travels with the students to teach them a course and to participate in a research project as well.
When Gupta was accepted, she used the World Wide Web to review descriptions of each of the laboratories with openings and chose to work with John Daly on the pharmacological actions of epibatidine, an alkaloid isolated from the skin of an Ecuadorian poisonous frog that has potent analgesic effects.
"The NIH experience was a real boon," she said. "It helped me define my research goals, which I couldn't have done at Colgate, and it put me in an atmosphere focused on research. It's really a great program for students from smaller schools."
Gupta's work so impressed Daly that she was awarded an internship to continue her research in his laboratory after graduating from Colgate. Also, she was recently accepted to the graduate program in pharmacology at Georgetown University.
Students are not the only ones who benefit from such programs. "It's as useful for the faculty member as the student," said Colgate biology professor Nancy Pruitt, who traveled with Gupta and the other students to Bethesda. "You can work in the lab just like the students, learn new techniques, take advantage of the libraries, the seminars--the whole scientific culture of NIH. It's a very refreshing, exciting experience."
By selecting only the most enthusiastic and qualified applicants, Colgate has built a reputation for providing NIH laboratories with excellent students. "We have some NIH labs that are so excited about Colgate students that they've been calling me asking for more," said Pruitt.
Other colleges and universities supported by the Institute also encourage student research off campus--sometimes even before students reach college. For example, Scott Santos got his first taste of research in Hawaii as a high school student. "I was at a point in my life where I didn't have any real direction," he said. "I didn't even intend to go to college."
The summer after his junior year in high school, however, Santos began studying marine biology with the Blue Water Marine Laboratory, a program of the Waikiki Aquarium, where he worked as a student instructor for this shipboard marine education program. Later, as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, he studied marine biology and served as program manager for the laboratory's cruises. "That experience opened my eyes to how fun science could be," he said. Today he is a graduate student studying cell-cell signaling between symbiotic organisms--including those that live in coral reefs--in the lab of Mary Alice Coffroth at SUNY-Buffalo.
As an undergraduate at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Nicole Radich knew she was headed to medical school, but "wanted to get a feel for a corporate environment." She had been doing research on human papilloma virus in the laboratory of Jeff Sands, the program director of the HHMI grant at Lehigh. Through him, she met a supervisor at Merck Sharp & Dohme, who also was a part-time graduate student at Lehigh. Radich asked about research opportunities and soon was able to arrange a summer internship.
She found the work at Merck very different from what she had done in an academic lab. Her project involved measuring the effectiveness of various sterilization techniques for the equipment used to make pharmaceuticals. "The company needed it done and I felt I had a use," said Radich, who is now in medical school at the New Jersey University of Medicine and Dentistry.
Another way for undergraduates to experience research in a new setting is to travel to another academic institution for a semester or summer. At the University of Pittsburgh, David Burgess runs a summer program that receives up to 250 applications for 12 to 18 slots. Students spend 10 weeks in the laboratory of a sponsoring faculty member, doing a research project of their choice. At the end of the program, they write research papers and give oral presentations at a departmental symposium. These students have been "spectacular," according to Burgess, with more than 60 percent of them going on to graduate school and 24 percent to medical school.
Each summer, Auburn University in Alabama hosts six to eight students and faculty members from historically black colleges and universities who come to the campus to undertake research projects. The principal goal of the program is to interest the students in biomedical research careers. "We do more than just assign them a corner of the lab," said Lawrence Wit, director of the Hughes program at Auburn. "We try to give them whatever support they need."
At the end of the summer, the students present their work to the faculty and students. "It's incredible to watch these kids who might have known very little about molecular biology give a seminar," said Wit.
Wit has begun compiling a list of off-campus research opportunities to post on Auburn's World Wide Web site, and similar efforts are under way elsewhere. At the Institute, for example, the grants staff is encouraging grantees to prepare lists of research opportunities--on and off campus--for posting on the Web.
"We want students and their parents to be able to look at this directory and see what each program is doing," HHMI's Perpich said. As students become more familiar with the expanding array of opportunities, he added, the trend toward off-campus research will continue to grow.