Plum undergraduate research assignments tend to go to students who have already run the gauntlet of introductory classes, labs, and major requirements. While this approach rewards dedication, it can also close doors for talented students who aren’t quickly convinced they want to pursue a career in science. The University of Texas at Austin is finding ways to engage more students in research earlier, says Sarah Simmons, the school’s HHMI program director. “Instead of just letting the most persistent, high-flying students get access to precious resources, we decided to expose as many students as we could to research early on,” she says.
With the help of a 2006 HHMI grant, the university created year-long Research Streams for freshmen, a program that will grow with the school’s most recent grant. Research streams allow students to tackle small parts of faculty members’ research agendas. “When you allow students to get excited about science by trying it, it lays the foundation for all kinds of success later,” says Simmons.
Some 500 students each year participate in research streams already. The new grant—the scope of which also includes faculty development and outreach to high school science programs—will make room for more students and include a focus on more cross-disciplinary research streams. It will capitalize on the spontaneous collaborations that have emerged between participating faculty in bioinformatics, biofuels, and biophysics. A new stream in algal genomics, for example, will marry molecular biology with bioinformatics, introducing students to a flourishing field of research with relevance to biofuel development. In another new stream, students will work in the lab and in the field to understand the evolutionary relationships between groups of organisms.
So far, the program’s results suggest that early research experiences can catalyze further study in science—and improved performance in upper-level classes. The research streams have also improved the recruitment and retention of science students from diverse backgrounds. “We hope that the experience will either light a fire in them so that they become scientists, or if not, that they at least understand what scientists really do,” she says. “We hope it’s something that can inform what they do for the rest of their lives.”