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UT Arlington connecting freshmen and research

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Media Contact: Traci Peterson

News Topics: chemistry, classes, engineering, labs, medicine, research, science

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UT Arlington’s College of Science has launched a new program to connect freshmen science majors and authentic research experiences with the goal of igniting a passion for inquiry and charting a path to a career in the STEM fields.

Freshmen research students

UT Arlington students Michael Atwood, Evelyn Wang, Dhvani Derasari and Yu-Sheng Sung participated in a pilot project that gave freshmen better access to research experiences.

Achieving Success through Undergraduate Research and Engagement, or ASSURE, begins this fall. A class of 24 students will spend this semester studying research methods. In Spring 2015, they will take part in a course through which they seek to answer a research question, such as analyzing natural products for new antibacterial drugs, rather than enrolling in a traditional lab introductory course.

The progression from classroom to research lab will be quicker than in the past when positions in research labs were hard to come by for freshmen. The group will work under the direct guidance of an experienced postdoctoral researcher, a graduate research assistant and several undergraduate research assistants.

“At UT Arlington we are committed to finding new ways to fulfill our central mission of academic excellence,” said Ron Elsenbaumer, provost and vice president for academic affairs. “Engaging outstanding students in inquiry-based laboratory experiences as soon as possible has been shown to build a strong foundation for their college success and the ASSURE program will give more of our students that opportunity.”

Kevin Schug, UT Arlington’s Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry, and Laura D. Mydlarz, an associate professor of biology, will oversee the initial ASSURE research stream. Ashley Purgason, assistant dean for undergraduate research and student advancement in the UT Arlington College of Science, began organizing the initiative in 2013.

“The ASSURE program represents a united effort at UT Arlington to make sure that STEM majors get early, first-hand exposure to the University’s world-class research programs,” Purgason said. “These experiences improve persistence rates for science majors and help make sure we are building critical thinking, analysis and communication skills needed to fuel tomorrow’s discoveries in medicine, technology, engineering and other vital fields.”

About 400 students enter UT Arlington each year intending to pursue a STEM major, and that number is expected to increase by 25 percent over the next five years.

Yu-Sheng “Sam” Sung took part in a pilot of the ASSURE program that included three students in Spring 2014. Sung and the other students examined whether ginger, pepper and the Indian cooking spice asafoetida held any promise for antibacterial activity. Their research won a top undergraduate award at the campus’ yearly Annual Celebration of Excellence by Students. 

The experience was more engaging than typical laboratory courses, where experiments have been done time and again, Sung said.

“An interesting aspect of research is that things don’t always go according to plan,” he said. “You can have a road map you want to follow but sometimes things go wrong and you have to be able to adjust accordingly.”

ASSURE is one of about a half dozen programs at U.S. universities that incorporate elements of a successful UT Austin program known as the Freshman Research Initiative. Of the hundreds of freshman who take part in that program each year, about 70 percent are still participating in research three years later.

The students taking part in ASSURE this fall were chosen from the 2014 freshmen class for their excellent academic records and their diversity. One of the goals of the new program is to increase the presence of typically under-represented groups in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, majors. This year’s group will focus on drug discovery research similar to the pilot program. Other research streams planned for the future include urban ecology, and bioinformatics and genomics.

ASSURE participants will have access to the cutting-edge instruments that are part of the Shimadzu Institute for Research Technologies, a $25.2 million research center at UT Arlington created with the help of a $7.5 million gift from the Shimadzu Scientific Instruments. In addition, Shimadzu has donated $50,000 to endow the new ASSURE program.

Evelyn Wang, a Ph.D. student who oversaw the ASSURE pilot, said becoming involved in research as a sophomore showed her “what research really is and what science can do.”  

“When the students have the ownership over their research projects, they go the extra mile,” said Wang. “They don’t even care how often they are there. They just want to see the results.”

About UT Arlington

The University of Texas at Arlington is a comprehensive research institution and the second largest institution in The University of Texas System. The Chronicle of Higher Education ranked UT Arlington as the seventh fastest-growing public research university in 2013. U.S. News & World Report ranks UT Arlington fifth in the nation for undergraduate diversity. Visit www.uta.edu to learn more. Follow #UTAdna on Twitter.

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The University of Texas at Arlington is an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action employer.