The research that impacts and transforms the world we live in takes years of diligent effort and teams of people contributing their time and expertise to keep the process moving toward answers to grand questions.
At UTA, faculty take and welcome with open arms undergraduate and graduate students into this process, allowing them to hone their research prowess in leading laboratories, gain invaluable experience, and play a vital role in the research mission of the University.
“Many students are intimidated by research, especially as undergraduates,” says Marco Brotto, the George W. and Hazel M. Jay Endowed Professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation. “But if their eyes are opened to what is taking place around them, they might have an interest sparked. Then, once they get a taste of conducting research and making a discovery, they’re addicted.”
Creating Lifelong Learners
Serving as living proof of Dr. Brotto’s philosophy for engaging students in research is Matthew Fiedler, a junior exercise science student and research assistant in Brotto’s laboratory.
Fiedler connected with the research community at UTA just four weeks into his freshman year and was hooked from the start, saying now that he’d love to spend the remainder of his working life doing research.
His time in laboratories on the UTA campus set the stage for him to earn a position as a summer research course assistant at the prestigious Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). Highly adept in imaging techniques, Fiedler will help professors in the classroom and with hands-on microscopy lessons. MBL attracts esteemed pre- and postdoctoral trainees, and Fiedler will be leading them as an undergraduate with two years left to complete his bachelor’s degree.
For Fiedler, his passion for research does look a bit like what we see in the movies.
“As I look through the microscope and find something, there are a few moments in which I’m the only one who knows what has been unlocked beneath that lens,” he says. “It’s an incredible feeling.”
While the opportunity at MBL is an unparalleled one for Fiedler to hone his skills in teaching technical research concepts, Brotto looks forward to the intangibles Fiedler will bring back to Arlington.
“I hope Matthew spends this summer engaging in work that sparks a long-term academic career and starts his journey to becoming an independent investigator,” Brotto says. “Should he raise and harness a passion for something this summer, whether it’s a concept or technique, it will serve to advance our lab as a whole when he returns.”
Faculty are most often regarded as the experts, but what students bring to a lab environment can be just as impactful as decades of experience, says recent UTA alumna Arisa Towns.
Towns graduated in December 2019 with a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology. She worked in the lab of Alison Ravenscraft, assistant professor of biology, in her senior year.
“Students play a bigger role in research than most people could ever fathom,” Towns says. “Many people are well acquainted with standard research papers, but they don’t realize that some of the research methods are often executed or even created by students.”
Towns believes research also contributes critical value to the academic mission of UTA.
“UTA prides itself on the research conducted on campus, and rightfully so,” she says. “The findings of laboratories often make it into the classroom setting as an important means to providing students with a visual understanding of what their core curriculum is centered on.”
Brotto echoes this, saying the sharing of UTA research in a classroom setting can help make it seem less daunting and more tangible, potentially inspiring more students to get involved.
While students benefit from engaging in research, many faculty members note that they do as well.
In the pursuit of answers to grand research questions within his laboratory, Mark Pellegrino, assistant professor of biology, utilizes the individual interests of students.
“The students in my lab each have their own independent research project that supports an overall research question that my lab studies,” Dr. Pellegrino says. “Even though each student works independently on their own project, their findings often support one another to help solve a bigger question. My students provide important intellectual contributions to the project by critically appraising their data and interpreting the significance of their findings.”
Kytai Nguyen, professor of bioengineering, credits the students in her lab with much of its success.
“My students are the main power in my lab,” Dr. Nguyen says. “As a result of their hard work, our group has gained various research and education awards and published several peer-reviewed articles since I came to UTA in 2005.
“The students play an important role in our research mission,” she continues. “Their ideas and results from their own experiments lend tremendous value.”
Beyond the Lab
At the UTA Research Institute (UTARI)—the research and development unit of the University specializing in applying cutting-edge technologies to real-world engineering problems—student involvement is not any less vital.
UTARI brings on over 50 undergraduate and graduate students each semester, with many continuing from semester to semester and working with the same research teams.
“Our mission is to perform research and development that links discovery, development, and technology commercialization to technology-based economic development that benefits society,” says Eileen Clements, director of research at UTARI. “The students are involved in research that directly relates to this mission and play a role in executing grants and contracts with federal and state agencies and industry partners and in moving research and development through the pipeline.”
Left: Kytai Nguyen guides students in her laboratory. Right: Student researchers at UTARI help develop tangible products, like the REHEAL glove pictured here.
Dr. Clements says she sees many success stories, as a number of students who served as research assistants at UTARI have been hired as full-time employees after graduation, while many others credit their experience at UTARI with success in their job hunt.
“All of our research activities are addressing real-world problems, and in many cases are connected to business partners,” she says. “The students are often being asked to work on projects that have real deadlines, budgets, and deliverables attached to them. Having this kind of research assistant experience can really make the difference in getting the job.”
Pellegrino also emphasizes that experience in a laboratory as a student can make a world of difference in a student’s preparedness for life after graduation, whether that life involves research or not.
“If a student thinks they are interested in pursuing a career in research, then starting early during their undergraduate studies is a definite advantage,” Pellegrino says. “But laboratory experience also helps students learn critical organizational skills that can be applied to any career.”
“The students play an important role in our research mission. Their ideas and results from their own experiments lend tremendous value.”
Towns says her time in Dr. Ravenscraft’s lab provided her with more experience than she could have ever imagined and credits the enthusiasm for research and mentorship of her faculty leader with her landing a job in a petroleum laboratory shortly after graduation.
“I will always be grateful for Dr. Ravenscraft and her patience with me as I learned the lab processes,” Towns says. “She took time to not only correct my mistakes, but also to help me understand the reasoning behind them. Her guidance helped me fully grasp research practices and helped me start my career. I felt confident going into interviews because I knew I was well-versed in relevant topics thanks to my amazing lab professor.”
Fiedler emphasizes the importance of students discussing their interests with their instructors. He credits getting connected with the network of faculty on campus early on in his studies with the success he is experiencing now.
Towns agrees, praising the connectivity of faculty on campus.
“The process of getting involved in a lab on campus is easier and less daunting than I anticipated,” she says. “The students and faculty at UTA are so very helpful. Even if they can’t provide you with the information you are seeking, they will always point you in the right direction.”
For students interested in research, UTA’s Office of Undergraduate Research offers a number of formalized undergraduate research programs and professional development opportunities to engage students in the scholastic process and help them discover their passion.
Towns’ advice for students considering getting involved in research? “Go for it.”
“Research not only provides you with great experience that will benefit you in your quest for jobs after graduation, but it also provides you with the opportunity to be a part of the best feature of UTA,” she says. “My involvement in research at UTA has provided me with even more gratitude for my alma mater.” uta