When Andy Cowan began taking undergraduate courses in physics and astronomy two years ago, he didn’t limit his academic experience to the classroom. In addition to building a comprehensive background on astronomy through rigorous course work in Van Allen Hall, he started acquiring specialized knowledge through a research venture with UI scientists studying the aurora borealis. The scientists handed him a big assignment: Cowan would help develop software to interpret data from an experimental rocket the scientists had fired into the northern lights.
“I wanted to get my feet wet as soon as possible,” Cowan says. “I wasn’t particularly concerned at the time with what branch of physics and astronomy I was working in, but this project was definitely interesting. Research is nothing at all like class work. On top of that, there are research skills that can’t be taught in the classroom, like budgeting time and developing the discipline to sit in front of a computer for eight hours a day.”
The senior from Ames, Iowa, has had plenty of opportunity to hone his research skills. He spent the summer of 2002 and the following school year refining the rocket’s software. He used a National Science Foundation grant the next summer to go to the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, W.Va., where he helped design instrumentation programming for one of the world’s largest radio telescopes. And, for the past several months, he and Craig Kletzing, associate professor of physics and astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have been sifting through evidence from NASA’s Cluster spacecraft for signs of an elusive space plasma wave.
Kletzing, who has watched Cowan’s enthusiasm grow in the classroom and the lab, says that students at The University of Iowa have a distinct advantage by attending this major research university.
“Some of the most exciting research in the world takes place on the University of Iowa campus,” Kletzing says, “and one of the greatest things about this research is that even undergraduates can play an important part in it.”
They don’t have to be students in rocket science to participate. Undergraduates across campus can engage in cutting-edge research in disciplines as diverse as dentistry and dance. Every year, more than 2,000 future doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, accountants, journalists, politicians, artists, and others supplement their undergraduate classroom education with research projects—either on their own or in collaboration with faculty members—because they want practical experience in their chosen field, they love to learn, and they know their campus is a hotbed of such activity.
“They’re high achievers,” says Bill Decker, interim UI vice president for research. “They’re the ones with ‘Rubik’s Cube’ personalities who like to solve the unsolvable puzzles.”
Undergraduate research takes the form of everything from cleaning test tubes and beakers to running complicated experiments, editing faculty manuscripts, and collecting data. But in every case, Decker says, the experience is designed to give students a look at the many facets of their areas of study and expose them to alternative career opportunities while also introducing them to the rigors of academic scholarship.
Undergraduates involved in UI research get to see at an early stage how the abstract concepts they’re learning in the classroom connect to the real world, according to Thomas Boggess, professor and chair of physics and astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
“Seeing theory brought to life builds excitement and enthusiasm, as well as confidence,” Boggess says. “Dealing with a research project also sharpens problem solving and other skills. And a research experience helps students decide whether they might want to do research as part of their career. This is terribly important when they consider whether to go on to graduate school.”
Many student researchers learn that their academic field and the research opportunities—either or both—are not what they thought they were, and sometimes decide these things are not for them, according to David Redlawsk, assistant professor of political science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Political science major Kimberly Brisky says working with Redlawsk on studies of voter decision making deepened her appreciation for the complexities of American politics as well as the importance of staying flexible about her career plans.
“I’m definitely pleased to have found ways to balance my liberal arts education with practical, real-world kinds of responsibilities through research, but now I also know that political research is not where my true interests lie,” Brisky says.
Brisky will step into the world of full-time work in a few months. An admitted political junkie, she’s glad she invigorated her résumé these past two years with an internship in her department. As much as she once thought she might like to live out her love of politics in a research role, she’s now no longer ruling out other life-after-college prospects, such as running for public office or pursuing graduate study in public policy.
“I’m not sure if my experiences introduced new options or just whittled the options down,” says Brisky, who hopes to find work in Washington, D.C., this summer. “Whatever the case, I’ve gained a rich background that’s allowed me to keep my career options open-ended.”
Still, many student researchers cement an abiding interest in their chosen profession. Senior Kelly Rohder, a double major in journalism and English, says her research has put her in touch with the rich history of journalism in Iowa. Rohder helps Stephen Bloom, associate professor of journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, with the Iowa Journalists Oral History Project. Rohder copyedits transcripts of interviews of veteran Iowa journalists and is redesigning the project’s web site.
“I’m passionate about journalism, so I love contributing to the preservation of its heritage in Iowa,” Rohder says.
She and political science student Brisky can register their experiences as internships on their official UI transcripts, because their research projects are supported by the University’s Undergraduate Scholar Assistantship (USA) Program. According to Jane Schildroth, who runs the USA Program in the UI Career Center, the program pairs faculty with talented students who want to excel in their area of study, and, in addition to official recognition on University records, provides students a stipend of $1,250 per semester while they assist professors on specific projects. Whether through the USA Program or other initiatives, faculty members welcome the opportunity to work closely with students, Schildroth believes.
“We have exceptionally talented undergraduate students in our department, and nowhere is this more apparent to our faculty than in a research setting,” says physics and astronomy chair Boggess.
Physics and astronomy students can advertise their interests through the central office in Van Allen Hall, or respond to a faculty member’s advertisement. They often get involved in research as part of their classroom experience, as in the 29:137 Astronomical Laboratory course, where undergraduate projects this past semester resulted in the submission of two manuscripts for publication.
Almost every campus department offers internship and independent study courses. The political science department’s Government Internship course exchanges credit hours for student work in a state or national legislative office, in an executive agency, or with an election campaign official. Professor Redlawsk believes the course introduced many undergraduates this past fall to a hard lesson they would not have learned anywhere else.
“Campaigns look like fun in the media, but in reality they’re an awful lot of grunt work,” says Redlawsk, who sponsored 25 interns in the months before Iowa’s January caucuses. “A lot of the grunt work falls to interns. Still, it’s a good way for any student to gain practical insight into the inner workings of American politics.”
The grunt work also makes students more marketable to industry and graduate schools, Redlawsk believes. And, if they want to, students can set their shoulders to the wheel the day they step on campus. Like many teachers on campus, Redlawsk has recruited everyone from first-year students to seniors to help with his research.
“Some students get so involved in my work that they become expert enough to critique my papers,” Redlawsk says. “Some even open my eyes to revisions in my experiments.”
Redlawsk solicits student help through his web page (www.uiowa.edu/~c030111/opportunities.html). But he tells his students that one of the best ways to get involved in faculty research is simply to walk up and start talking with professors whose work seems interesting.
Easy access to adventurous teachers and scientists is a large part of what makes The University of Iowa an undergraduate research hotbed, according to Decker. UI senior Matthew Ephraim thinks he’s lucky to have found work among scientists who are leading the fight against muscular dystrophy.
“At first, I was just looking for a way to make money that wasn’t mopping up a bar floor or something like that,” says Ephraim, a management information systems student in the Henry B. Tippie College of Business. “But it’s great to have a part-time student job that not only pays the bills but also gives me the chance to contribute to something that really matters.”
Ephraim works 10 to 20 hours a week as a computer technician in the Campbell lab in the Eckstein Medical Research Building. He’s one of several hundred undergraduate students who found work-study or regular part-time jobs this year in medical and science labs across campus through the UI Student Employment Office. His supervisor, Kevin Campbell, UI Carver College of Medicine’s Distinguished Professor of Biophysics and Physiology, says his undergraduate lab assistants usually start by cleaning dishes but can work up to genotyping of mice and other detailed technical analysis alongside graduate research assistants. Campbell doesn’t care whether the undergraduates who walk through his door clutching their paperwork from the UI employment office are pre-med, science whizzes, or art students. The only requirement is that they bring with them a desire to work.
“You want to know what I look for in a job application? Experience bagging groceries at Hy-Vee,” Campbell says, completely straight-faced. “There’s the old-fashioned work ethic we hear about so much in the Midwest? Well, I expect to see it.”
Campbell thinks the University has a not-so-secret asset in its undergraduate research assistants. He’s convinced they contribute interesting ideas, give faculty and graduate researchers a fresh perspective, and infuse the laboratory with enormous good humor and spirits. Over the years, some of his best and brightest undergraduate lab assistants have come from disciplines that have little to do with science and medicine, such as business and math. Some of these students even have ended up as contributing authors to published papers spawned in the lab’s research streams. Campbell can trace his finger along a computer list he keeps of some 75 names of undergraduate lab assistants from years past and point to example after example of stellar post-Iowa accomplishments—the medical student in Chicago, for instance, and the neuroscience graduate student at Harvard. He hopes he might have been a contributing factor to their successes. But like many dedicated teachers, Campbell believes that influencing his students’ characters is as important as filling their minds.
“What I teach my student workers is everything they should have learned in kindergarten,” Campbell says.
Campbell wants his student workers to have fun while they learn, but he’s not afraid to lay down the law. There’s no dating between undergraduate lab assistants (emotional attachments interfere with work), no newspaper reading (okay in the lounge area, but unseemly within the walls of a dead-serious medical lab), and no radios blaring (headphones are okay).
“It’s all about good citizenship,” Campbell says. “It’s great fun to have undergraduates around, but we shouldn’t miss the chance to instill values that will hold these students in good stead through their academic and lifelong careers. That may be hard to get across in a big lecture hall, but when you’ve got them one-on-one in the lab, what better time?”
by Gary Kuhlmann