When Eric Mou graduates in May, he’ll have on his résumé more than three years’ experience researching cancer.
That’s because the pre-med biochemical engineering major from West Des Moines, Iowa, began looking for research opportunities during his first year at The University of Iowa. He quickly found a good fit as a research assistant in a UI Carver College of Medicine lab studying the effects of drug treatments on breast cancer cells.
“I had no experience going in to the lab,” he remembers. “So I spent the first summer getting acquainted with what they did. The longer I worked there, the more interaction I got. Being able to interact with faculty and graduate students combined with the experience of looking deeper into the subject of cancer research really helped me figure out what I want to do after graduation. It was a real-world experience that I really couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.”
As a major public research university, The University of Iowa is brimming with opportunities to be involved with hands-on research in fields ranging from political science to medicine to business. In 2006 the University founded the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU) to give students, staff, and faculty a central point of contact for information on research opportunities, mentoring, and funding.
Currently, about 25 percent of undergraduate students get involved with staff and faculty research at the University before they graduate. Benefits include the chance for those students to challenge themselves in new ways as they move their education beyond the classroom; the possibility of discovering new interests and passions; the opportunity to work closely with University staff or faculty mentors and graduate students; the chance to gain a unique experience that sets them apart on graduate school and job applications; and the ability to earn credit hours toward graduation. Some students also receive stipends.
“Research gives you another way of looking at a problem: You have to be critical, analytical, and confident that you will find answers even when you don’t get the desired results,” says Lisa Gillette, a junior finance and economics major from Ottawa, Ill., who spent five semesters on a project looking to predict the performance of Major League Baseball pitchers based on past performance and physical characteristics.
While many parents and students think of research as something for juniors and seniors, Bob Kirby, director of ICRU, encourages students to start investigating opportunities during their first year on campus.
“I tell students, ‘If there’s an area that excites you, follow up on it, see where it takes you,’” he says. “In some disciplines, they may find that they need a little bit more course work before they jump into working with one of the faculty, but in many areas, they’re really going to learn what they need to on the fly. If a mentor says, ‘I think it’d be better if you hold off,’ at least the student is on his radar, and has gotten that feedback.”
The Iowa undergrad research experience carries beyond the research work itself. ICRU helps provide avenues for students to present their research, sponsoring events like the Fall and Spring Undergraduate Research Festivals as well as Research in the Capitol, an annual event where undergraduates from Iowa’s three public universities present their research in the State House rotunda. It also sponsors workshops like “Finding Research Funding,” “Research and Your CV,” and “Creating a Research Poster.”
“ICRU helped me communicate my research,” Mou says. “They emphasized learning how to talk about research with people who aren’t familiar with it, and how to do that without losing the substance of what you’re trying to communicate.”
Research—including undergraduate research—has long been central to Iowa’s academic mission, but with the establishment of ICRU, support for the experience has increased.
“We’re doing much, much more today to help foster undergraduate involvement in research,” Kirby says. “There’s more support for it on a for-credit basis and on a financial basis, and there are more avenues for students to share their findings, from presenting work at disciplinary meetings to taking them to Des Moines and sharing them with legislators. It’s really a great benefit to everyone to have this work recognized.”
by Anne Kapler