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Undergraduate researchers gain valuable skills doing “real science”

Having undergraduate students do real-world research is key to developing professionalism and a passion for their fields, say a Geosciences professor and a former student, in the January/February issue of The Professional Geologist, the official magazine of the American Institute of Professional Geologists.

“The trial-by-fire experience gained through two years of original research helped develop the scientific philosophy and skills that I apply daily in my budding career as a geologist,” writes Jake Cammack (Geology, '11) in “The Benefits of Research in Undergraduate Education: Perspectives From a Teacher and a Student.”

“The process of conducting original research at the undergraduate level helped make me a more competent geologist and scientist,” Cammack says.

Doing actual research in the field as undergraduates means students “can apply knowledge and skills they have learned in classes to assess actual problems,” writes Professor of Geosciences David Gonzales in the article, adding, “For those of us who promote the Liberal Arts education, research is also a useful tool to help students develop a broader perspective about the role of science in our communities.”

"This is real science,” says Gonzales of undergraduate research. "We ask them to take the next step, from undergraduate students to undergraduate scientists. If they can do the research and learn the difference between book learning and applied scientific learning, then we've made a real contribution to the field."

At Fort Lewis College, laboratory studies and field work are the signature experiences for students in the sciences. Here are what some other of FLC's "undergraduate scientists" have to say about their undergraduate research experiences.

Pariss Trujillo
Junior // Major: Chemistry // This summer: research internship at Harvard Medical School

Pariss TrujilloResearch project: "Glucose metabolism in acidobacterium capsulatum studied by 1 h-nmr and in vitro studies of cell lysates and cloning of a putative transaldolase gene"

My undergraduate research at Fort Lewis College began my sophomore year. I assisted in classifying an organism called aciddobacterium capsulatum, one that is abundant all around us in environments like soils. This research was exciting to me because it had the potential to be a part of a scientific discovery.

The experiences I’ve had in the chemistry lab have helped me learn outside of the classroom. Hands-on learning gives you a chance to learn something on your own. It provides a way for you to learn the good old-fashioned way, with visual observations and thought processes that lead to understanding a subject.

This summer I am working at an Alzheimer’s research lab related to the Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. My research is focused on the cascade of events that cause Alzheimer’s disease. We are studying the various enzymes and proteins that give us more information as to the exact cause of beta amyloid plaques that form in the brain and are suggested to be a key factor of Alzheimer’s disease.

FLC opened the door for this experience because it introduced me to the laboratory techniques that are relatively universal in every science lab. Although the experiments are very different, FLC helped me develop the lab skills I need.

Veniece Fagerlin
Senior // Major: Exercise Science // Non-profit created: “Measurable Fitness,” bringing personal training and wellness coaching to low-income area residents

Research project: “High intensity interval training as a means to reduce symptoms of metabolic syndrome in women ages 40-65”

Like all my other classes at FLC, my senior seminar project finally made me realize what I want to be when I “grow up.” As a result, I am starting my own business as a personal trainer, focusing on the aging population. Additionally, I'm starting a non-profit organization to bring personal training and wellness coaching to those who cannot afford the one-on-one direction to address their fitness and avoidance of diseases that can occur through unhealthy choices.

For my senior seminar project, I taught HIIT classes to mature adults twice a day, four days a week, for six weeks. I worked with volunteer nurses to collect data before, in the middle, and at the end of the study for all participants. Upon reviewing the data we discovered there was a statistically significant improvement in triglycerides, and I was able to partially accept my hypothesis.

In the beginning these participants were strangers who responded to ads in the local paper, but in the end they became friends. The hands-on learning I’ve experienced at FLC has helped me learn to adjust to situations, and continue with confidence.

Caleb Crain
2013 graduate // Degree: B.A. in Psychology // Next: Music Therapy program at Colorado State University

Research project: “Melodic alleviation: disrupting Alzheimer’s through song”

My experiences at FLC have helped me tremendously by giving me a grasp of what it is like to be a researcher. I now have the knowledge and capability to design experiments and help explain certain facets of human behavior through statistical analysis and self-report measures.

Hands-on experiences are powerful and I am so thankful that FLC has given me so many opportunities to see psychology in action. Hands-on learning was important to my education because it allowed me to have real experience with the material. Reading the information in a book or taking notes in a lecture is essential to the learning process, but until you are able to experience it, it’s difficult to solidify in your mind.

Last summer with the Field School in Psychology course I had a chance to work at the Napa State Hospital in California, where we volunteered in the forensic wing. That allowed me to see the humanity behind the psychological symptoms we studied. I learned it's important to not forget about the people who still live inside the tortured minds or debilitating disorders. Hands-on experience helped me see that there is so much more to us than what is diagnosable, and brought to light the reality behind a subject that I could never have fully understood until I saw it with a human face.
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