by Eric Sorensen | © Washington State University
If the world of cutting-edge research has a glamorous side, it was lost on Laurel Graves this summer as she found herself digging trenches for soil probes on the Cook Agronomy Farm north of Pullman. In the high summer heat, Graves dug for two hours. Palouse soil covered her arms.
It was a hard-earned insight into the nature of science.
“You mean I’m not doing complex equations constantly?” she wondered. “Oh wait, I’ve got to be a farmer for a while.”
She was not alone in the grunt work department. Jeronda Hunt wrangled scores of petri dishes harboring white, smelly bacteria. Naeh Klages-Mundt spent three weeks looking at page after page filled with line after line of genetic code: ACGT, GCTA, GTCA, and so on.
And in a boneheaded move familiar to most every novice cook and veteran lab tech, Klages-Mundt mistakenly tossed out a DNA sample, costing himself the previous 24 hours of work.
“The one good thing that comes from that,” he philosophizes, “is throughout all my time in biology in the years to come, that will never happen again.”
So who are these scientists, embracing dirt, slime, and crushing repetition for a chance to chip away at global warming, a potato bacteria, and a fungus threatening the world’s wheat crop?
Undergraduates. Or, to be more precise, undergraduate researchers.
An undergraduate’s bench time used to be limited to following recipe-like instructions for the lab requirement of a science class. Undergraduate lab jobs rarely got more sophisticated than washing bottles.
“A lot of faculty believed in the past, and I have to say sometimes they still do, that under-graduates don’t know enough yet to do research,” says WSU’s director of undergraduate research, Shelley Pressley ’99 MS, ’04 PhD.
But with the right mix of guidance and opportunities, say Pressley and other WSU faculty, undergraduates can tackle some fairly sophisticated scientific problems and get results worthy of posters, presentations, even publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
Along the way, the students, mentors, and the university itself accrue a host of benefits. Students engage with the material, observe potential role models, and learn more about their fields, the art and craft of science, and themselves. Faculty get help with projects. The university attracts and retains more students while bolstering its missions of research, teaching, and outreach.
All of which could be seen this summer when more than 50 students from WSU and schools around the country came to the Pullman campus for the summer research experience funded by the National Science Foundation, USDA, and faculty research grants. The students’ mission: Working one-on-one with faculty mentors, tackle an original real-world research question or problem with an eye toward presenting their findings.
“These are not hobbies,” Dave Bahr, WSU’s first director of undergraduate research and a professor of mechanical and materials engineering, told them as they assembled on their first day. “These are things we really want to get finished.”
And in a flourish befitting a reality TV competition, the whole process—from clarifying the question to setting up equipment to gathering data to drawing conclusions and making a paper, poster, or presentation—had to be done in a little more than nine weeks.
On the way to their field site, Laurel Graves and Heather Baxter stop for supplies: paper bags, a one-meter-square steel hoop called, fittingly, a square meter, and curved, razor-toothed Japanese rice knives.
“You really don’t want to touch them,” says Graves, an Arlington junior majoring in engineering. “I’ve cut my fingers a few times.”
“Me too,” adds Baxter, a fellow engineering major and senior from Stanwood.
With Sarah Waldo, a doctoral student in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, they drive up to the Cook Farm and walk through a field of small-headed club wheat to a flux tower, a framework of air samplers and wind gauges. Crops are for the most part climate-change mitigators, tying up more carbon in the soil than they put into the air, but scientists don’t know how much, explains Waldo. Graves, Baxter, and Waldo aim to help find out by measuring how much carbon dioxide this crop consumes and releases. The flux tower measures the air, compiling tens of thousands of data points a day; the researchers regularly harvest wheat plants, dry them out, and calculate how much carbon and nitrogen go into their biomass.
“This is one of the first projects in the United States looking at the greenhouse gas dynamics of wheat,” says Waldo.
At that, she looks at her fellow researchers and says, “You want to divide and conquer?”
They divide up bags, grab rice knives and square meters, and head off, taking pains to avoid trampling the crop.
Not long ago, an undergraduate wouldn’t get near a test plot, let alone put his or her hands on a rice knife.
“Historically a lot of them were washing bottles and being the shadow of a grad student or postdoc,” says Pressley, herself a veteran of an undergraduate research program.
But starting in the 1980s, universities began increasing undergraduate research opportunities, if only to stem students’ declining interest in science majors. In 1995, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching created a commission to investigate how research universities in particular might better educate undergraduates. The first recommendation of the commission’s Boyer Report: “Make research-based learning the standard.”
“Undergraduate education in research universities,” it said, “requires renewed emphasis on a point strongly made by John Dewey almost a century ago: Learning is based on discovery guided by mentoring rather than on the transmission of information.”
The Boyer Report was echoed on the WSU campus less than a decade later when a consultant on undergraduate education noted that colleges and universities were embracing “active, inquiry-based learning.” At his suggestion, WSU in 2006 created the office of undergraduate research and appointed Dave Bahr as its director.
At the time, says Bahr, WSU had a dispersed “grassroots” system of undergraduate research.
“These programs come and go,” he says, “because they take a big administrative load and they’re a hassle, but they pay off in the long run for the university in terms of recruiting and in terms of visibility.”
Bahr himself started WSU’s first Research Experience for Undergraduates, a National Science Foundation-funded program, in 1999. It focused on materials characterization, and from that helped other departments—electrical engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering, and atmospheric research—with similar programs. Summer research spread into the regular year to where between one-eighth and one-fourth of WSU students help with some sort of inquiry.
Firm figures are hard to come by, but Bahr estimates the number of student researchers has probably doubled since 1999. It also helped improve the retention of those students from 40 to 85 percent.
“It appears that undergraduate research helps people feel more connected to the process of being engaged in their education,” says Bahr, who left WSU this fall for a position at Purdue University. “It helps in critical thinking. It helps in presentation. It helps in leadership skills. Undergraduate research ends up helping in all the things that, when companies hire people, they say they want.”
As the movement toward more undergraduate research got under way, universities had an “aha moment,” says Pressley: Student researchers were more confident and more likely to stay in their field, or at least graduate.
“Because they started to see the application of what they were learning in a real-life problem,” she says. “It became more than a textbook. It wasn’t, ‘I’ll have to learn the periodic table.’ Who cares about the periodic table? But when they start relying on that to solve a problem, it becomes real and it becomes important.”
“It’s not really school anymore,” says Graves after harvesting her day’s square meter of wheat and putting it up to dry. “It’s something that’s actually going to affect the people around you. I feel a heightened sense of responsibility in producing good research.”
“Global climate change has always been kind of a scary idea, but something just scientists worry about,” she adds. “This is something that I have to think about now.”
The downside of solving problems is that, if they were easy, they wouldn’t be called problems. Most every researcher, undergraduate and otherwise, has to wrestle with that reality.
For summer students with just nine weeks to tackle a problem, it’s even more bewildering.
“There’s been a lot of trial and error, that’s for sure,” says Cassie Smith, a WSU junior from Marysville. “One of my professors told me I put the ‘re’ in ‘research.’”
Smith’s early research attempt in the summer of 2011 was not just a complete bust. It was an explosion.
She tried to build her own oven for growing carbon nanotubes, molecular-scale tubes with phenomenal strength. By accident, a flammable gas inside a bell jar apparatus blew up, sending one large, heavy bell jar four feet in the air. No one was injured.
This year, she used an off-the-shelf furnace and made carbon nanotube mats, spaghetti-like structures that fall over and interweave as they grow. The problem is, she was trying to make more vertically oriented turfs. In a variation of making lemonade with a lemon, she compared the properties of the two and found that, while different structurally, they may have comparable applications.
She also learned something about herself.
“It’s very important to have patience if you’re going into research,” she says. “Persistence is key. And there are endless things to learn. I’m never bored. It’s endlessly interesting. There’s something new to learn every day.”
Bahr bore witness to Smith’s struggles—he acted as her mentor—as well as the false starts of dozens of other students. He now sees the process as a narrative arc in which the learning curve is steepest at the start, consuming 150 hours—about three weeks—before things start to make sense.
Next, he says, “is this crazily effective crystallization of ideas coming together, and people all of a sudden talk about what they did in an articulate manner. It’s been remarkable to me over the years to see the patterns.”
Along the way, the students see first-hand the core elements of the scientific pursuit: the snafus, the need for vigilance, the creativity, the blend of independence and teamwork, the satisfaction of being on the frontier of knowledge, and the Sisyphean feature of two questions emerging for each one that gets answered.
Andrew Robinson, a mechanical engineering senior, consistently heard students complain of things going wrong. He had similar feelings when he first started doing research during the regular school year nearly two years earlier.
His skills have clearly improved, as evidenced by a six-foot-tall water tank in which he could drop a small catamaran and measure accelerations as it hits the water. He only needed to measure something lasting 40 milliseconds, but he knew he would have to spend weeks on his setup and days looking at an Excel spreadsheet.
He was chiefly interested in vertical shocks on the hull, but he had to spend two weeks reconciling how to deal with some mysterious horizontal acceleration.
“You just have to find out how to make it work,” he says. “When most students figure that out, it gets fun again.”
In the end, he had a piece of research that, judging by his literature searches to date, is unique for that type of hull.
“I’ve looked pretty hard,” he says, “and the harder you look for a paper on the same subject and the less you find, the cooler it gets.”
Laurel Graves, the undergraduate atmospheric scientist and occa-sional farmer, echoes the thought.
“I really like the idea of being able to direct my own project and do something that no one else has done before,” she says. “Just saying that is, like, ‘Woah, I can’t believe I’m doing this.’ The entire world, all 7 billion people, and we’re the only ones doing this thing. It’s kind of a crazy thought.”
Not every undergraduate researcher succeeds, at least not technically. Not all will co-author a paper or present work at a national meeting, although one-third of Bahr’s students do. Others may find that research simply isn’t for them.
“They are realizing that, while they are finding those little treasures and clues, there are definitely some detours sometimes,” says Amit Dhingra, a horticultural genomicist who has more than a dozen undergraduate researchers in his lab each semester. “I try to convey to them that that’s part of it.”
The detours can also include outright failure, but Dhingra tries to redefine that word.
“It just means that part is the wrong direction,” he says. “It’s like you’re in a maze. You just turn around and come back.”
“What I learned is, first, you have to be humble,” says Jeronda Hunt, who spent the summer in plant pathologist Brenda Schroeder’s lab sequencing bacteria that attack potatoes. “You’re going to make mistakes, and that’s part of science. Once you mess up, you got to start over. Usually, a lot of people don’t get that. They just think, I don’t have my results. That’s it. But there’s always a different technique to get whatever results that you want to have. I learned that, instead of using just one method, use several methods to get what you need.”
Maddy Fuchs, a Montana State University senior from Spokane and 400-meter hurdler, had it particularly tough, starting three weeks late as she filled in for a student who didn’t come. She expressed an interest in biofuels and atmospheric pollution, so she was placed with the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance.
The WSU-led effort aims to create aviation fuel from wood using some of the same processes used by pulp mills. Fuchs set out to estimate what emissions to expect, using data from a mill in Bellingham and her own small-scale laboratory experiments with a reaction vessel and two mass spectrometers.
“I’m not necessarily behind,” she said in the final weeks of the summer, “but I don’t have enough time left.”
But on a morning in early August, Fuchs was one of dozens of smartly dressed students standing alongside posters with often convoluted, cryptic titles and their names as lead author. Hunt’s poster showed that she had isolated about 30 benign bacteria from diseased potatoes and found one, Pectobacterium wasabiae, which leads to the diseases blackleg and stem rot. Robinson’s poster described several ways a hull can get slammed. Other posters talked about silenced genes, a possible treatment for E. coli on apples, a genetic analysis to determine cherries that can cross with a specific variety of sweet cherry, and the risks of arson to piles of biomass.
And there in a corner of the Smith Center atrium stood Fuchs and a poster identifying more than half a dozen compounds among the scores of compounds produced in her reactor. Mike Wolcott, her mentor and co-director of the renewables alliance, said ring structures among the compounds she identified suggests they have potential as structural materials or aromatics for flavorings.
In the process, Fuchs, who started out with no engineering experience, says she became more self-directed and confident.
“I realize that, given another opportunity, I could jump into this and get it done, obviously with the help of other people,” she says. “I feel a lot more confident now.”
For all its frustrations, many students are inspired by the research experience to go in whole new directions.
Originally, Alejandro Prieto returned to school for some quick retraining and a return to the workforce after Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and technician jobs for communications companies. But two summers ago he did a research program that had him learning about wind trajectories and measuring ozone and carbon dioxide on a mountain in Colorado. The instruments kept showing strange spikes in CO2. No one, including students from Yale and Princeton, knew what was going on. Then Prieto, the guy in his early 30s from Bronx Community College, wondered if there might be some forest fires upwind. He was right.
“It opened my eyes,” he says, “and I said, ‘I can actually continue.’”
Now he’s aiming for a PhD. He’s only one of the latest to feel that way.
Marian Kennedy ’02 BS, ’03 MS, ’07 PhD thought she was just getting a summer job when she signed on for Bahr’s first summer research program back in 1999. She figured it would help pay for school and kill time between the spring and fall semesters. She organized research, worked on complex problems, and found she could actually add to the body of knowledge about materials science. Moreover, she learned she liked it.
Now she’s an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Clemson University. She’s also directing a summer research program, where she says she hopes to “achieve the same transformation in the students who walk through our doors.”
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