With the economic recession forcing more students to attend community college, the transition to a four-year university can be particularly tough for those who are interested in engaging in undergraduate research.
“For the most part, they don’t make it into a lab until their senior year, so it pretty much guarantees that they’ll graduate with one year or less of laboratory research experience,” says Kenneth Burtis, dean of the college of biological sciences at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis).
But now, transfer students at UC Davis will have the opportunity to get the full benefit of doing undergraduate research, through multiple research projects or one long-term effort. With the help of an HHMI grant, the biology faculty is designing a program called FASTRAC—FAcilitating STudent Research ACcess—that will identify up to 20 community college students each year who are interested in working in a research lab after they transfer to UC Davis. During winter break of their last year in community college, the students will spend two weeks at UC Davis to meet faculty and other students, receive mentoring, and get an intensive lab experience.
About half the students from FASTRAC will be selected to work in biology labs for 10 weeks in the summer and participate in the institution’s Biology Undergraduate Scholars Program, which provides activities with peers who are also doing research. Burtis is optimistic they will continue working in those labs until they graduate. “By the time the summer comes to an end, and they begin their coursework, they’ll be fully embedded in their labs and hopefully will carry forward with a successful research experience,” he says.
Burtis thinks the project could have a big impact on community college transfer students who aspire to do scientific research. Students who do research for a full two years have more opportunities to coauthor papers, present their work at scientific conferences, and get strong letters of recommendation for applying to graduate school—all steps on the path to becoming a working scientist.