UCA a leader in undergraduate research

With his sleeves rolled up and plastic safety goggles strapped tightly to his head, chemistry major Ryan Thurman closely watches his test tube as he waits for a sign that his theory for purifying a compound has worked.

Thurman, a senior, is participating in an undergraduate research project at UCA that is allowing him to sharpen his lab skills. Thurman?s objective is to couple two molecules. The task is part of a larger project aimed at creating a lightweight polymer coating that could eventually be used on space-bound vehicles.

An undergraduate education is often regarded as a time to learn the core of a specific discipline. After students learn the basics as an undergrad, then they can go on to graduate school where they can get hands-on experience by conducting research in conjunction with a professor.

But opportunities such as co-authorships and invitations to make presentations at professional meetings whose audiences include national and international scholars is possible for current and future students at UCA, a public university in central Arkansas.

In 2000, UCA was one of fewer than 200 universities (only 35 of which were public institutions) in the nation that were invited to participate in a national study of undergraduate research programs in the natural sciences. Earning such a distinction, once again, made UCA a leader among not only public universities in Arkansas, but also across the nation.

Science is not the only discipline that allows undergraduates to conduct research. Programs from business to political science allow UCA undergraduates to obtain early research experience.

Dr. Barbara Clancy, an assistant professor of biology, said undergraduate students ?greatly contribute, and, in fact, many times they actually drive the research with their enthusiasm and with their ideas. In my lab, we worked on a great project this summer that simply would not have been done without their help.?

Dr. Pat Desrochers, an associate professor of chemistry concurred. ?More than just being allowed to participate in research, undergraduates should be encouraged to do research with faculty on the UCA campus. Undergraduate research experience offers students a true image of what graduate research will be like. This allows students to make informed choices about future careers.?

Desrochers said undergraduate students should not be prevented from participating in research because original scholarly research is an effective teaching method. ?Of course undergraduates enter the research enterprise with little experience at first, so it is incumbent on faculty mentors to parse research projects into manageable pieces. Evidence of this creativity and dedication by faculty mentors on this campus can be seen in the many successful projects and experiences received by past and present UCA undergraduates,? he said.

Dr. Richard Tarkka, an assistant professor of chemistry, is one such faculty member who is helping undergraduates receive valuable research experience. He said its important to understand that undergraduate research is not really about making huge discoveries; it?s about students learning research techniques and how to solve problems early on. ?They?re not going to solve the big eureka,? he said. ?But the work that they do could lead to 150 little eurekas.?

Dr. Ron Toll, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, said undergraduate research is simply an extension of the teaching and learning process at UCA. ?The best way to learn how to do something is by doing it. The art students learn how to paint by painting, so why shouldn?t the science students learn scientific research by doing it,? he asked.

One of the challenges, according to Toll, is ensuring undergraduates use time management skills when participating in research. ?We don?t want to overburden them, and sometimes that?s hard not to do when they?re so enthusiastic about participating in research,? he said.

Dr. Gabe Esteban, UCA Provost, said he is supportive of the current efforts of faculty in each college in encouraging undergraduates to participate in the research process. ?Through our current efforts, our faculty develop mentoring relationships with our students and foster an atmosphere of inquiry and stimulate their intellectual curiosity.?

-Jennifer Boyett