The University of Arizona

Undergraduate Research Opportunities Abound at UA

By Shelley Littin, NASA Space Grant intern, University Communications | January 30, 2012

At the UA, undergraduate students have many opportunities to get involved in scientific research.

Nicolle Ioakem works in the Tucson Marine Phage Lab, where she is writing her honors thesis on a novel technique in marine biology called phage FISH and is learning to use automated software to count the number of bacterial cells infected with marine viruses. (Photo by Shelley Littin/UANews)
Nicolle Ioakem works in the Tucson Marine Phage Lab, where she is writing her honors thesis on a novel technique in marine biology called phage FISH and is learning to use automated software to count the number of bacterial cells infected with marine viruses. (Photo by Shelley Littin/UANews)
Neuroscience major Anu Venkatesh works in two UA research labs. “I learn a lot more in lab than I do in the classroom, because lab work is so hands-on,” said Venkatesh. “It’s much more tangible.” (Photo courtesy of Anu Venkatesh)
Neuroscience major Anu Venkatesh works in two UA research labs. “I learn a lot more in lab than I do in the classroom, because lab work is so hands-on,” said Venkatesh. “It’s much more tangible.” (Photo courtesy of Anu Venkatesh)
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Most students go to college expecting to start their careers only after finishing their undergraduate degree.

Not Anu Venkatesh. She's already started her career, working in two labs while completing her undergraduate neuroscience degree, gaining experience that she feels gives her unparalleled insight into what her future career could be like.

"If you're interested in research, being in a lab gives you an insight into what you're going to be doing in your job. Most people don't get the privilege of seeing what their job will be like," said Venkatesh. "I know I want to go to graduate school for neuroscience. I really enjoy lab work because of the nature of science: being in lab all day and reading articles and talking to people about what they do."

Many students like Venkatesh have discovered that at the UA there is a multitude of ways to get involved in cutting-edge scientific research, even as an undergraduate. Still, the most difficult thing for undergraduates interested in science often can be finding the courage to approach faculty members.

"I think that's a big step," said Glenda Gentile, director of the UA College of Science's Office of Undergraduate Research. "You must be confident enough to approach a faculty member and say: ‘I'm really interested in your research. Can you tell me about your work?'"

Nicolle Ioakem understands that apprehension: "As an underclassman, I didn't know what I was going to talk to faculty about – I felt so under-qualified," said Ioakem. "But that's the point. They expect you to be under-qualified. So they start you off on a small project, you gain experience, and then they let you go on to a more advanced project."

"Being involved in undergraduate research has many, many benefits," said Gentile. "The earlier you start the more benefits you gain. It gives you an opportunity to take things that you've learned in class and apply them to a question that you'd like to answer. It helps you develop critical thinking skills."

"The UA is a Research I institution," said Gentile. "That means we're a research-based institution. We have the expertise, the faculty and the resources readily available. And the UA has a longstanding culture of incorporating undergraduates in research."

There are a number of ways for undergraduates to get involved in research at the UA: through programs that provide funding for undergraduates to do research, through their home departments for academic credit, through volunteering or by using work-study as a stipend for research.

"Also, in many cases faculty are able to pay for an undergraduate to do research in their lab, and the student doesn't have to be in a particular program," said Gentile.

The UA College of Science's Office of Undergraduate Research website gives links to the various programs that fund motivated students to do research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or so-called STEM, disciplines.

The Undergraduate Biology Research Program, or UBRP, funds undergraduates to work fulltime in the life sciences during the summer with an option to continue during the academic year, and the UA/NASA Space Grant program funds undergraduates to work part-time during the academic year with a faculty mentor on a science or science journalism project.

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Consortium, or UROC, is a consortium of programs geared toward funding individuals from groups traditionally under-represented in science.

In addition, most UA colleges and departments have faculty interest webpages that list opportunities for students to get involved in research in their home department. "My office serves as a resource for students interested in undergraduate research within the STEM disciplines," said Gentile. "Students can email me. I can help answer questions and refer you to appropriate undergraduate research opportunities."

There are additional opportunities for research outside the STEM disciplines, which can be found at a website called Student Opportunities for Undergraduate Research and Creative Expression, or SOURCE.

"Many undergraduate research programs that provide funding for research during the summer of 2012 have application deadlines of Feb. 1 or a few weeks later," said Gentile. "Now's the time to apply for research during the summer."

"The important thing to remember is that it's not just one particular program. There are a number of ways, a number of opportunities and a number of disciplines through which you can get involved in research."

Volunteering is one of the best ways to get involved outside of the programs, said Gentile. "Show an interest in what a faculty member is doing, in their project; ask if you can help them, go to lab meetings and learn more about what they're doing."

Venkatesh knows firsthand the importance of showing an interest in faculty research. "I was introduced into lab work through a friend of mine, who said I should go to BIO5 and see what they are doing that I may be interested in, and maybe talk to the principle investigators, or PIs, and see if I could work in their labs," said Venkatesh.

"I initially started off doing independent study. You tend to work harder because you get credit for it, and once the principle investigator sees that you're a pretty good student, they might want to hire you."

Venkatesh now works in two labs: Carol Barnes' neuroscience lab, where she's been for nearly three years, and Lalitha Madhavan's lab, where she started this semester looking for genetic markers as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases progress.

"We're trying to identify the genetic mechanisms that make up these diseases," said Venkatesh. "And by doing that we're hoping to understand it better and find a better cure."

Ioakem also works in two labs. She began doing plant stoichiometry in the Enquist lab two years ago after she got an email from her academic advisor asking if she wanted to get involved in research. "I didn't have any research experience," said Ioakem. "I saw that email and I was like, ‘Yes, I need to get research experience.'"

For Ioakem, who is a pre-medicine student, it didn't matter that the research was not related to medicine. "I really enjoy the lab and the people, and the research is super interesting," said Ioakem. "I've gotten a lot of hands-on experience and I've gotten to be very familiar with the lab instruments and techniques, which helped me a lot in organic chemistry classes and to be very efficient in my lab skills."

Her second research position began when Ioakem was invited to do a research project at Biosphere 2 by her professor, Matt Sullivan, after doing a class project for Sullivan's marine biology class. Ioakem decided to continue working in the Tucson Marine Phage Lab to write her honors thesis on cutting-edge techniques in marine biology, specifically a technique called phage FISH.

"FISH stands for Fluorescent In Situ Hybridization," said Ioakem. "It's a technique for identifying and quantifying microbial cells in microbial communities. Basically the purpose is to identify the number of bacterial cells that are infected with a virus by using a fluorescent stain to identify the viruses."

To count the number of infected cells, the researchers look at slides through a microscope and manually tally the numbers. "I'm trying to navigate and understand this new automated image software to do the cell counting, but to make it automated so that the cells don't have to be counted manually. It's just a little difficult because there's no manual," said Ioakem. "My thesis is to generate the manual."

Both Venkatesh and Ioakem feel their research experiences have helped them make decisions about their future goals and gain valuable skills for their careers. "I learn a lot more in lab than I do in the classroom, because lab work is so hands-on," said Venkatesh. "It's much more tangible."

"It's helped me talk to a lot of graduate students and see their work and other PIs," said Ioakem. "It's really interesting to get in contact with these people because they're doing such interesting work and you learn so much about stuff you didn't know. In the Sullivan lab, I'm basically learning how to do auto-image analysis on my own. If ever I need to do it again I'll be like, ‘yeah, I already know how to do this.'"

And pretty soon you're not so under-qualified any more.