You are here

From Student to Scholar

How Research is Enhancing the Undergraduate Experience

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Biochemistry major Christine Palermo had been working in Professor Gerard Cangelosi’s laboratory for six months when she observed something puzzling. While studyingmycobacterium avium, a bacterium found in people with HIV, she began noticing an unexpected variation in how it responded to red dye. Others assured her it was a known variation, but she remained curious. So she continued her experiment and soon identified a drug-resistant strain of the bacterium—a finding that may have implications for future HIV treatment.

That’s heady stuff for a UW sophomore.

Christine Palermo discusses an experiment with J.P. Laurent, a postdoc in the laboratory where she does research.

Christine Palermo discusses an experiment with J.P. Laurent, a postdoc in the laboratory where she does research. Media credit: Mary Levin

Palermo, now a senior and still working in the lab, considers her research experience the highlight of her undergraduate education at the UW. Other students involved in research agree. And their numbers are growing: this year, more than 200 undergraduates presented their research at the Undergraduate Research Symposium—and they represent only a fraction of UW students involved in research.

“It’s an exciting opportunity, and one we would like more students to experience,” says David Hodge, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The UW is a top research university. Discovery is at the heart of our enterprise, and we encourage students to tap into all the research taking place on campus. It can add so much to their education.”

Mingling with the Pros
While most undergraduates do not make discoveries as noteworthy as Christine Palermo’s, a growing number of students are becoming sophisticated researchers, even presenting at national conferences or co-authoring papers for professional journals. Those with the greatest success share several common traits: Initiative. A passion for the subject they are studying. And a willingness to fail.

“You learn what you don’t know when you are faced with a problem that hasn’t been explored before,” explains Janice DeCosmo, director of the Washington Space Grant Program, which places 75 undergraduates in faculty laboratories each summer. “The answers aren’t in the back of a book. You have to be willing to go where you don’t know what the next step might be. You have to be willing to take wrong steps to find the right ones. Some students are overwhelmed with the frustration factor.”

To make students less overwhelmed, faculty often give them routine tasks early on, allowing them to take on more independent research as their skills progress.

That was the case for anthropology major Tristan Nicholson. Nicholson began working in the UW’s Infant Primate Research Laboratory three years ago, through a psychology course that introduces students to research. “I loved it,” she recalls. “I thought it was an amazing opportunity. I was one of those eager students always looking for more to do, staying longer than required, asking lots of questions. After my second quarter there, they offered me a job to collect data on infant primates’ social behavior.”

Tristan Nicholson

Tristan Nicholson

As Nicholson continued working in the lab, her responsibilities increased. When she was required to write a thesis for the UW Honors Program, she decided to use data from the infant lab to study how early experiences affect social development in infant pigtailed monkeys.

“Using available data, I decided to look at how the composition of social group—the number of males and females, the number of normal and atypical members—impacts development,” explains Nicholson. “It’s something that has been relatively understudied.” Nicholson found that while females are relatively unaffected by group composition, male infants in all-male groups exhibit atypical behaviorial development compared to males in balanced sex groups. She also found that normal infants interact more positively when their group includes atypically developing peers. She is now writing a paper on her research, which will be submitted for publication.

It won’t be the first time Nicholson’s work has been in print. Several of her abstracts already have been published. And last August she presented a poster describing her honors research at the American Society of Primatologists meeting.

“When someone in my lab first suggested that I present at the American Society of Primatologists Meeting, I looked at him like, ‘What? Me?’ But I’m so glad I did it. There were famous primatologists there—I’d read many of their articles. It was great to have them come to my poster and offer their perspectives on questions that interested me. And now when I read an article and see the author’s name, I think ‘Oh, yes, I remember him.’”

Ancient Tales, Modern Technology
When senior Elliott Martin’s research is complete, it also will be published—but not in a journal. It will be published as a website for scholars interested in literature of the ancient world. Martin, a double major in history and Near Eastern languages and civilization, with close ties to the Department of Classics, has spent the past year compiling an exhaustive bibliography of primary and secondary literature related to ancient Mediterranean studies, with the aim of finding connections between the literature of various cultures.

“I’m starting with ancient Egypt—the mid-third-millennium B.C.—and going through Sumer and Babylonia to the Biblical and Persian periods, all the way through Greek and even early Christian work,” explains Martin. “The purpose is to find related works in fields that often separate themselves. We tend to look back in a snapshot kind of way, but it is undeniable that these people, and their languages, mixed and mingled.”

Elliott Martin

Elliott Martin. Media credit: Mary Levin

Although Martin is passionate about the project, its genesis was less cerebral than financial. Martin had mentioned to Scott Noegel, assistant professor of Near Eastern languages and civilization, that he was short on cash. Noegel, recognizing Martin’s potential, helped him develop a proposal for a Mary Gates Research Training Grant. About 100 such grants are awarded to undergraduates annually to support their research.

“It just seemed like such a practical project,” says Martin. “I think Scott had inklings of doing a project like this and saw that with my background, we could focus on the whole ancient world.” Martin’s “background” includes knowledge of an astonishing array of ancient languages including classical Hebrew, ancient Greek, Latin, Aramaic, Ugaritic, and Syriac, as well as familiarity with ancient Egyptian, Akkadian, and Sumerian.

Martin’s extensive language skills would prove essential for the project. He has spent endless hours buried in literature in every language imaginable, deciding what sources to include and searching for connections between them. First he tackled secondary sources, then he searched for primary sources. Along the way, he has kept the UW’s librarians entertained. “Go to the library and ask for The Wisdom of Amenehope in the original hieroglyphic, and you get some strange looks,” he says.

Now Martin is working on the third stage of the project, which involves cross-referencing each work with publications written about it and other versions based on it. He will probably graduate before completing this stage, leaving the final portion to someone else.

“I’ll get as far as I can,” he says, “but I think the collection of the materials has been a major accomplishment. It’s been fun to see the excitement of people in a variety of UW departments who know I’m working on this.”

More Than an Intellectual Exercise
Like Martin, art history major Jesse Locker has spent most of his research hours in the library. He’s taken on two projects: a paid research position with Joel Walker, assistant professor of history, and an independent project through the UW Honors Program.

Jesse Locker

Jesse Locker

For Walker, Locker is collecting information about a specific region of Turkey in 600 A.D. “There’s a biography of St. Sykeon, who lived during the seventh century, but the town of Sykeon has never been found,” explains Locker. “Joel thinks he may have found the town, but he needs to do a lot more research and excavation to be sure. I’ve been doing research for him on church design in the region, and lining up biographical writings and archaeological findings to see if I can locate places mentioned in the literature.”

For his honors thesis, Locker focused on some of the earliest fully preserved mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore, a fifth century church in Rome. “No one has been able to figure out exactly what they mean,” he says, “so I’m looking at the liturgical function of this church in the city as a key to the mosaics. It might seem an obvious thing to do, but no one has done it.”

Locker hopes to have his honors research published next year— “probably in some obscure Icelandic journal of art history,” he jokes—but even if his work doesn’t make it into print, he has learned some valuable lessons about scholarship.

“I’ve learned that all of history is constantly in flux and absolutely nothing is a fact,” he says. “Art historical material from 1950 or 1900 or 1600—all are equally a product of the particular social environment they happen to be written in. I have come to realize that I, too, won’t have the all-time answer.”

Locker also learned that research requires a level of professionalism that is hard to duplicate in coursework. “It’s no longer an intellectual exercise,” he says. “Both your reputation and your professor’s rest on the solidity of your research. Of course the professor can always ignore what you say if it seems farfetched, but the professor is wasting money if you are not doing valuable work.”

Discovering What Students Can Accomplish
It is true that faculty should expect students to take the research seriously. But it is also important for faculty to give students some room to make mistakes, says DeCosmo.

“When we set high expectations for student accomplishments, students accomplish more,” DeCosmo explains. “But we do also have to remember that they are undergraduates and they will make mistakes. Those mistakes are valuable to their learning.”

DeCosmo admits that, as recently as five years ago, many faculty feared undergraduates would make too many mistakes or require extensive training, so they shied away from including undergraduates in their research. But things are changing—rapidly.

“Now I get faculty requests for undergraduate researchers six months in advance,” says DeCosmo. “When I started seven years ago, I was only able to place students with my personal friends, who felt they couldn’t say ‘no’. It was just difficult for faculty to imagine undergraduates accomplishing very much.”

DeCosmo found that things really changed when undergraduate research became a University priority. “People started talking about it more,” DeCosmo recalls. “And faculty started to see, firsthand, what undergraduates can do.”

Christine Palermo

Christine Palermo.

Which brings us back to Christine Palermo and her study of mycobacterium avium. When Palermo chose to continue an experiment deemed unnecessary by others in her lab, it could have fallen flat—but it didn’t. And her faculty mentor, Gerard Cangelosi, could have been annoyed by her decision to continue the experiment without his approval—but he wasn’t.

“Good scientists will do that sort of thing,” says Cangelosi, assistant professor of pathobiology, “because they are curious and they have initiative. An outstanding scientist will do it and it will work out. Christine’s success rate is very high. So I’ve learned to give her some space to use her own head.”

Even Palermo is amazed at the level of independence she has achieved in the lab. “For the first two years or so, Dr. Cangelosi would say to me, ‘Let’s look for a way to answer this question,’” she recalls. “It’s evolved to where I can ask the question, order the equipment I need, set up my experiment, and do it. He’s given me a lot of room.”

The approach must be working. Cangelosi‘s lab recently received a research grant for just under $1 million, in which Palermo’s research figures prominently. “I was so excited when we got the grant,” Palermo recalls. “I called my mom and said, ‘Mom, I made my first million!’”

Matching Students’ Skills with Opportunities
Most undergraduates don’t help secure a $1 million grant, of course. Most don’t have—or want—the independence that Palermo enjoys in her research setting. But even students doing more mundane tasks can contribute to cutting-edge research in meaningful ways.

“I usually have about five undergraduates working me,” says Julianne Dalcanton, assistant professor of astronomy. “They are an essential part of my research team. And they are not all honors students. Anyone who has the gumption to talk to me about doing research probably has the initiative to become involved.”

Dalcanton says the key is to find projects suited to the student’s abilities and interests. “Some students just want to get their feet wet, just work for a quarter to see if they enjoy it,” she says. “So I give them simpler projects. Others are very skilled in certain areas and can do more independent work.”

Brant Robertson (seated) with Professor Julianne Dalcanton and postdoctoral student Frank van den Bosch.

Brant Robertson (seated) with Professor Julianne Dalcanton and postdoctoral student Frank van den Bosch. Media credit: Mary Levin

Brant Robertson, a junior majoring in astronomy and physics, joined Dalcanton’s research team last summer and already has co-authored a paper published in the Astronomical Journal, one of the two journals in the field. “Brant is tremendously technically capable, so I was able to give him a project with a lot more physics and programming,” explains Dalcanton.

Robertson created a computer program that allowed the researchers to analyze measurements of the rotational velocity of a spiral galaxy. “Previously, these measurements had been used to argue against dark matter theory,” explains Robertson, “but our group wanted to see if that conclusion was due to the limitations—the errors of the measurement—in radio observation. We showed that, in a certain type of these galaxies, dark matter is completely consistent if you take into account the radio observation errors.”

Much of Robertson’s work in Dalcanton’s laboratory has been funded through the Space Grant Program. He has spent three summers doing research through Space Grant, each time in a different setting. Besides helping him figure out whether he wants to pursue a research career—he’s decided he does—the varied research experiences have given Robertson a different perspective in his classes.

“When some students are in class and hear that so-and-so did this observation and came back with a huge amount of important information, it doesn’t mean that much to them,” explains Robertson. “Without knowing the effort that goes into doing the experiment and making it work correctly, the appreciation isn’t there. The subject material takes on a whole new face when you’ve done research and you understand what’s really involved.”

A Different Perspective in Class
Like Robertson, most students involved in research find that the experience colors their classroom learning. Tristan Nicholson says, “I’ll be in a class and the professor will be talking about a study, presenting the findings as facts. And I’m thinking, ‘Was there a good study design? What were the statistics they used? Are the variables they measured really able to answer the question?’ Because through reading studies critically and being involved in my own research, I’ve learned to question others’ research, as well as my own.”

Palermo finds she’s more motivated in class because of her research—especially if the information is potentially applicable to her experiments. “I remember one biochemistry class in particular where every day I would step out of the classroom and take what I’d learned that day right into the lab. Needless to say, I worked very hard in that class.”

The subject material [in class] takes on a whole new face when you've done research and you understand what's really involved.

Dalcanton points out that the benefits can be particularly satisfying for students who have not been high academic achievers. “I’ve had average students who have gotten involved in research and have become much stronger students as a result,” she says. “It can give them the push they need to move to the next level.”

And then there are the students who may continue to struggle in class but discover their strengths in the research setting. “There are students who don’t excel in all areas but have a real passion for one subject,” says DeCosmo. “Once they engage in research that’s close to their field, they really blossom.”

Dalcanton has seen this effect first-hand. She describes a student who is “weaker academically” but good at taking a problem and working through it. “Research has given him a chance to play to his strength,” she says. “From his transcript, you wouldn’t get the sense that he had talent in science. But in the research setting, he really stands out.”

Connecting with Faculty
Research also allows undergraduates to work directly with a faculty mentor. Many comment that the experience makes their professors seem more human—and more hard-working. “If you only go to classes, you only see professors as getting up and teaching,” comments Locker. “Research definitely gave me a lot more insight into what is really involved in an academic career. The teaching is just part of it. The other half is research and writing and publishing. I think they play off each other.”

Tristan Nicholson has enjoyed the guidance of two mentors—Psychology Professors Joan Lockard and Gene Sackett. “Joan is really hands-on,” says Nicholson. “For a long time, I met with her weekly to discuss my abstracts, honors thesis, or posters. She was really involved.” As Nicholson has become more involved in data analysis, she has sought guidance from Sackett, whom she describes as “famous for statistical analysis.” She says, “Being at a big research institution, there are so many faculty you can approach for advice, and so many opportunities to get involved in research. But you must seek them out and be persistent.”

Elliott Martin, whose research is mostly solo work, also meets regularly with his mentor, Scott Noegel. “He’s led me through a seemingly insurmountable amount of material, like Virgil leading Dante along through Hell,” says Martin with a grin. “This has all been a one-on-one effort. I can only hope this is what graduate school is like in terms of the student/professor relationship. It’s been a really special experience.”