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Assuring Success

New program immerses undergraduates in real-world research and experiential learning
By Nancy B. Strini
Photography by Justin Clemons

Photo:Chemistry sophomore Yu-Sheng “Sam” Sung is among the many UTA undergraduates getting more hands-on research opportunities.

SSociety depends more than ever on technology and scientific discovery, but a lack of college graduates in those fields threatens to slow progress. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. President’s Office of Science and Technology, America is short more than a million workers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) industries.

UT Arlington is changing the way students prepare for such careers by incorporating real-world research and experiential learning into classwork through a new initiative called Achieving Success through Undergraduate Research and Engagement (ASSURE).

“Data has shown that participating as an undergraduate in research ignites students’ passion for science. It increases their learning outcomes. They have better GPAs, and they graduate sooner,” says ASSURE director Ashley Purgason, assistant dean for undergraduate research and student advancement in the College of Science. “It positively impacts every end point that’s been studied.”

The College of Science launched ASSURE in fall 2014 with 24 freshman science majors, but the University’s long-term objective is to provide hands-on preparation to every freshman across all majors.

“Our goal is for each and every student to experience firsthand the wonders of discovery that come when creative talent is encouraged,” Vice President for Research Carolyn Cason says. “Research is the driver for economic development and the foundation of innovation and entrepreneurship. It creates jobs, companies, and industry growth. It brings increased adaptability to the community where those companies are developed.”

FRESH TAKE

In the past, undergraduate work in research labs was limited to the most ambitious upperclassmen because it was extracurricular and time-consuming, but many students were eager to get started earlier.

“If we’re going to give them high-impact experiences, we have to do all we can to get it into the curriculum itself,” Dr. Purgason says.

ASSURE replaces the traditional freshman science labs with a Research Methods course. It’s an intensive offering in the scientific method that begins with selecting a topic, moves to a study of existing scientific literature, then provides early experiences in analyzing and interpreting data. Students in groups of three or four choose a subject, write scientific experiments, conduct research, and submit full reports.

Then the excitement really begins. Students move into the research stream for the next two semesters, working alongside faculty. The topic for the pilot program is drug discovery, an interdisciplinary study in chemistry and biology that looks for antibiotic properties in natural substances. It’s an extension of research by Kevin Schug, the Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry, and biology Associate Professor Laura Mydlarz.

The pilot group chose to test ginger, pepper, the Indian cooking spice asafoetida, and some fungal species to see if any of the elemental chemicals contain undiscovered antibiotic possibilities. Their research won a top undergraduate award at UTA’s Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students.

“Science is an arduous process. Several dead ends, repeats, and failures precede breakthroughs.”

—Emmanuel Fordjour

The inaugural ASSURE cohort learned fundamentals in the fall Research Methods class and this spring selects its natural products to test. Purgason says they’ll likely be limited to samples of marine invertebrate organisms since they tie directly to the coursework and to environmental policy, a topic of interest to the students.

“The great thing is that when you choose the right topic, something exploratory, we can teach it to the students in this three-semester sequence, and it’s manageable for them,” she says. “The other thing is that it’s conceivable we might get one or two really interesting data points that these principal investigators will be able to take and run with.”

PRACTICAL LEARNING

Research requires specific skills and knowledge, which means inexperienced students need significant guidance. ASSURE assigns a full-time postdoctoral researcher to oversee every aspect of the student work.

“Because the students are brand new to this, it might take them four times to learn the steps and the processes, so they need someone there giving them that attention,” Purgason says. “While we want them to have that original thought, we do need to guide them.”

It’s intellectually stimulating to seek answers to real-world problems, and the chance to participate in peer-reviewed research and writing can be life changing, says chemistry sophomore Yu-Sheng “Sam” Sung, a pilot program member.

“One major benefit of this research experience is that it helped me develop critical thinking skills,” he says. “And it allowed me to form connections with visiting scholars and graduate and doctorate students in the lab.” It also helped bring his future into focus: Sung now plans to be an analytical chemist for an industrial company.

Sophomore biology major Dhvani Derasri wants to become a pharmacy professor. The pilot program has taught her that researchers must be flexible and persistent.

“Through research, I learned that plans do not work out 100 percent,” she says. “It’s important to adjust along the way. For example, you may think that something is going to produce a certain result, but something happens and it completely changes the dynamic of things. As a researcher, it’s important to adjust accordingly and keep trying.”

Students also discover that scientific exploration is a team sport and that they can overcome roadblocks when enough minds are engaged. Biology sophomore Yashaswini Nagarajan has continued the work she started in Dr. Schug’s lab. She calls research “the second level of learning, which is what college is about.”

“I learned what it means to be a team player,” she says. “Research is definitely not something that gets done merely through individual effort. It’s collaborative. I learned that this is true about many things in life.”

RESEARCH ROLE MODELS

ASSURE students can look to two of their College of Science peers for inspiration. Emmanuel Fordjour and Jessica Stevens, both double majors in biology and microbiology, received some of the nation’s top undergraduate research honors.

“With research, you don’t know the answers, and I love that.”

—Jessica Stevens

As a sophomore, Fordjour asked biology Assistant Professor Julian Hurdle if he could help research ways to fight Clostridium difficile, a dangerous bacterium that causes 14,000 deaths in the United States each year. The work helped Fordjour earn a 2014 United Negro College Fund Merck Science Research Fellowship Award and recognition in the Council on Undergraduate Research’s 2014 Posters on the Hill competition.

“Dr. Hurdle taught me—and I quote him—that ‘science is an arduous process.’ That several dead ends, repeats, and failures precede breakthroughs. And that ‘the thrill of uncovering the unknown or elucidating the not-so-apparent and leveraging this knowledge to improve our quality of life makes scientific research worthwhile.’ ”

Scheduled to graduate this spring, Fordjour plans to earn a combined M.D./Ph.D. and become a physician, educator, and researcher.

“Some day I hope to provide upcoming students and scientists the same opportunity Dr. Hurdle provided me to define and further my academic career through research,” he says.

Stevens received a highly competitive Goldwater Scholarship to examine an invasive species of zooplankton in Texas lakes. She changed her major from architecture in 2012 and has since worked in six faculty labs, including one in Tennessee. She graduated in December and intends to enter an environmental health graduate program at the University of Washington.

“I thought research would be boring, but it’s nothing like basic lab courses,” she says. “We see science at the lower levels as facts and answers. With research, you don’t know the answers, and I love that. It’s not just regurgitation. I never had the chance to really learn and grow until I came into science.”

Purgason believes that’s exactly the kind of learning the ASSURE program will provide. The students need to know that the skills and knowledge they gain can apply to multiple problems and situations.

“That’s how it is in life when you have a job,” she says. “You’re often asked to do things you have never done before or that no one has done before, and you won’t quite know how to tackle it. But you can use the skill set you learned to get it done.” It’s a lesson administrators are applying to the ASSURE program itself. As they gather data about its effectiveness, they will continue to modify, as all good researchers do.

“You go into your first year with a plan but every week you evaluate, see what’s working, what’s not, and make adjustments,” Purgason says. “We’re learning every week, and next year will be better than this year.”

And in future years, so will the outlook for technological advancements.

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