At many universities, undergraduates engage in scientific research only in their junior or senior years. Yet successful scientists all have the same core attributes—curiosity, communication skills and a willingness to learn interdisciplinary techniques— traits that many students already possess as freshmen. In 2020, the College of Science will give hundreds of undergraduates the opportunity to contribute to real research projects the year that they step onto campus.
The Science Research Initiative (SRI) is a team-based program that will connect students to research early in their education to gain valuable scientific skills. The vision is to provide an opportunity for any incoming student in the College of Science to do research. Additionally, the cohort model makes research opportunities more equitable for students from all backgrounds.
The initiative is self-sustaining by design with experienced students tasked with training incoming freshman—a model that could allow hundreds of students to contribute to a principal investigator’s research for decades. The initiative has support from the university, the state, and industry partners who see the benefit of producing students who are ready to thrive in Utah’s STEM workforce.
“Research opportunities for undergraduates are transformative experiences. The problem that the college has historically faced is that there are many more science majors than there are openings in faculty research laboratories. The SRI solves that problem by scaling up the model of one-on-one faculty mentorship in the framework of vertically integrated research streams,” said Peter Trapa, Dean of the College of Science.
The SRI aims to give 500 undergraduates per year the opportunity to contribute to scientific discoveries, just like Bridget Phillips, a Crocker Science House Scholar and sophomore biology major with a math minor, had this summer.
Phillips was working in biologist Mike Shapiro’s Pigeon Genetics Lab writing code for a project hunting for genes that determine the birds’ eye color. She was mining mountains of data searching for a quantitative trait locus (QTL) peak and comparing the genotypes of two groups of pigeons with different eye colors. Because pigeons breeds are the same species, their genetics should look identical except for the gene locus underpinning eye color.
“I got a QTL peak that showed where the gene might be,” she said, smiling. “It was nice. I impressed the postdocs.”
Phillips has worked in Shapiro’s lab since her freshman year. She is an alum of ACCESS, a program where rising freshman in STEM disciplines join a cohort of like-minded undergrads ahead of their first semester in college. ACCESS facilitated her placement in the lab where she found her passion—coding and genetics, two things she never knew existed in a one career.
“Starting in a lab as a freshman is so useful, but the fear is that you don’t know what you’re doing. But you learn the skills really quickly,” Phillips said. “The earlier you can start, the better. If you find out your freshman year that you don’t like research, that’s good to know. If you like research, like I do, then you know what to aim for.”
The college based the SRI on a similar program at the University of Texas-Austin that impressed Henry White, Distinguished Professor of chemistry and former dean of the college who championed the initiative during his tenure. Since starting the program 20 years ago, UT-Austin has increased enrollment and improved student success, particularly among those from underrepresented groups in STEM fields.
“Students from families who’ve been going to college for generations come to campus recognizing that research opportunities are just as important as the classes themselves,” said White. “This program is meant to promote students who haven’t had the opportunity to be involved in research. We hope to introduce underrepresented, first-generation students to research opportunities, enriching their experience at the U.”
During the first semester, a cohort of students will take a research course to learn basic lab techniques that will replace a traditional prerequisite class. The second semester, the students begin work in a lab led by a principal investigator. They continue the research for their third and fourth semesters, and train an incoming cohort to create a “steady-state” model. During their third year, the students can do an internship or work on an individual project that resembles a more traditional undergraduate lab experience. The college aims to have different streams of research in data science, molecular biology and many disciplines across the College of Science.
In January 2020, a small pilot cohort began the SRI journey. White, Shelley Minteer, professor of chemistry, Markus Babst, professor of biology, and Braxton Osting, professor of mathematics, have committed to developing initial projects. The goal is to eventually have 500 freshmen, sophomores and transfer students participate every year.
SRI brings benefits beyond campus Others outside the university see benefits beyond student success. Funding has come from many sources, including corporate, foundation and individual gifts and workforce development funds from the Utah State Legislature. ARUP Laboratories, a national pathology lab, research facility and a nonprofit enterprise of the U, and BioFire, a medical diagnostics company, are sponsoring SRI because they view the partnership as mutually beneficial.
“We are constantly looking for well-qualified people to work in labs. It’s a career that’s understaffed—graduates have no problem finding a job, but there’s not a good awareness of this as a possible career path,” said Sherrie Perkins, CEO of ARUP Laboratories and professor of pathology at the U School of Medicine. “We’re so pleased to be a part of this exciting new program and to continue the pipeline of excellent students coming out of the university that we employ.”
Research opportunities indeed open many doors, agreed Rachel Cantrell, a senior chemistry major and Goldwater Scholarship recipient. Also an ACCESS alum, Cantrell has worked in Ryan Looper’s organic synthesis lab since her freshman year. At the time, she thought she wanted to be a pharmacist. Instead, she fell in love with research.
She is developing a scaffold for new antibiotic candidates, a crucial field of inquiry as bacteria are constantly building resistance to current antibiotics. Cantrell’s molecule is modeled after a natural product that kills both bacteria and human cells. Her project focuses on modifying the molecule so that it will only kill the bacteria and leave human cells alone. She plans to pursue a PhD after graduating this year. Beyond the research, the community and networking aspects of ACCESS made a big impact on her life.
“I met a lot of great people there that I’m still friends with. I got to meet faculty and was selected for a scholarship to study in Germany—the community aspect was huge,” she said. To undergrads thinking about whether they want to work in a lab, Cantrell has this advice, “You have to give it a chance. I worked as a pharmacy technician for a while, but I loved being in the lab more. Check out what you like. It can open some huge doors.” The new SRI aims to do just that.
– First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019