USF Magazine Summer 2012

Volume 54 | Number 2

Cover Story

Young Researchers

| USF News

Sinhye Lee in a lab

"The people I work with are really passionate. That motivates me to do better." — Sinhye Lee
Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

When it came time to choose a college, Sinhye Lee knew she wanted to be at a place where she could conduct research early in her university experience.

That led her to USF and the Office for Undergraduate Research (OUR).

"The biggest reason I chose USF," says the second-semester biomedical science major, "was to be involved in undergraduate research. A lot of universities don't offer that."

Today, the Korean-born Lee is part of a research team working in chemistry professor Shengqian Ma's lab to prepare metal organic frameworks for energy-related applications.

Each week she spends about six hours in the lab making crystals from metals that, when connected with molecules, can produce porous structures capable of storing gases like hydrogen and carbon dioxide.

"At first I had no idea what was going on, then I started understanding the things I was doing," Lee says. "The people I work with are really passionate. That motivates me to do better."

Lee is one of a growing number of undergraduate students at USF engaging with faculty to enrich their academic experience through research. They're learning even before classes begin about the multitude of resources available to students to support undergraduate research.

Resources like OUR's "Getting Started" workshops which teach students about the types of undergraduate research opportunities available at USF; the importance of interdisciplinary research; how to engage with faculty and staff; and the responsibilities that come with an undergraduate research position.

"I learned about the workshop through my orientation packet," Lee recalls. "I went because I wanted to find out the first steps to getting involved."

Focus on undergraduate research

Why the emphasis on undergraduate research?

Studies show, time and again, that students engaged in undergraduate research are more likely to stay in school, perform better academically, are quicker to graduate, and are more competitive for jobs and graduate school admissions. Oftentimes, they develop lasting associations with research mentors beyond their undergraduate experience.

Helping students get involved in undergraduate research and understand the expectations of working with mentors is the job of the undergraduate research office. Building on more than 15 years of commitment to undergraduate research by Honors College Dean Stuart Silverman and his staff, the office offers a variety of services, instruction and education tools, such as workshops, a computer lab, sponsored research projects, and funding in strategic areas to help students in all disciplines and at any level engage in undergraduate research.

"We're here to demystify the process," says Richard Pollenz, associate dean and director of OUR who was appointed to the position in August.

Richard Pollenz

Richard Pollenz, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research, speaks with a presenter at the Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium.
Photo by Anthony Morrison

"My job is to give everyone the keys to the store — to give them the information and tools they need to make informed decisions and choices about research."

In the fall, the undergraduate research office became a unit within the Office of Undergraduate Studies and moved to a new central location on the main library's second floor. It is now part of the Learning Commons which includes the Writing Center, Tutoring and Learning Services, and the library IT help desk. The move, Pollenz says, was intended to make the office more visible and accessible to all students and to enhance interaction with library faculty. The collaboration has resulted in the development of a library resources competency survey and the creation of undergraduate research opportunities within the Special Collections Department.

Since he was appointed to his current post, Pollenz and his team have been working overtime to promote and support undergraduate research at USF. Their goal is to facilitate processes that will pave the way for all undergraduate students to engage in at least one research experience during their four years at USF.

It's an ambitious undertaking for a major metropolitan research university where undergraduates typically compete with more experienced and knowledgeable graduate students for opportunities and faculty time.

But it's an undertaking that is proving hugely successful.

In just five months, between November and April, the office put on 19 "Getting Started in Undergraduate Research" workshops attended by 329 students, as well as two Getting Started workshops tailored to specific student organizations and four professional development workshops. Students who complete the workshops are added to the Undergraduate Research Interest Group Blackboard organization that provides information about OUR events and services as well as new undergraduate research opportunities. In April, the office hosted the Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium, an event that gives students the opportunity to present their research and creative activities.

Interdisciplinary research

Rebecca Stoll with past edition of The Oracle

Rebecca Stoll conducts research in the library's Special Collections Department.
Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

Even though Rebecca Stoll, 19, is on track for a career in geriatric medicine, she didn't think she was ready for laboratory research. So, she was thrilled to learn in a recent Getting Started workshop that research often takes place outside the laboratory and outside a student's major.

This summer, Stoll is collaborating with Andy Huse, assistant librarian in the library's Special Collections Department, to curate an online exhibit and tour focused on USF's history.

"When I heard USF I thought 'I am definitely doing this,'" Stoll says, barely able to contain her Bull pride. "I'm not comfortable enough in the lab setting and I knew this would be a great entry point into research."

The office, she adds, was a great help. "I just happened to walk into a workshop and I walked out with a position."

The position is one of many undergraduate research positions developed in concert with OUR university partners — non-academic departments and units such as the USF Library, Office of Community Engagement, Office of Sustainability, Career Center and USF Wellness. The collaborative partnerships foster the creation of novel research opportunities and creative initiatives that promote undergraduate research.

Supporting students and faculty

Those initiatives, Pollenz says, aren't limited to students. The office works closely with faculty to provide resources and training and to gain further understanding to effectively engage students in undergraduate research.

"There has been an altruistic outpouring of support from faculty," he says. "There is a cohort of faculty I can readily call on to help our students succeed."

Pollenz understands the value of research and what it takes to succeed.

Since joining the university in 2000, Pollenz, a tenured professor in the Department of Cell Biology, Microbiology and Molecular Biology, has trained more than 25 undergraduate researchers, many who have continued on to MD and PhD programs. "I know the value of undergraduate research first-hand," he says.

Pollenz was instrumental in helping Cedric Symonette obtain an undergraduate research position in the College of Marine Science. Already familiar with OUR and convinced of the value of undergraduate research, Symonette stumbled upon a workshop schedule while exploring the OUR site online and signed up on the spot. Despite a rigorous class schedule, he quickly transitioned into the added responsibilities of an undergraduate lab assistantship.

Cedric Symonette in a lab

"Labs are a good foundation, but this experience is priceless."
Photo by Aimee Blodgett | USF News

Since February, Symonette has been working with graduate research assistant Monica Mion in chemical oceanography professor Edward Van Vleet's laboratory on a project to help eradicate dangerous estrogenic compounds in the municipal waste waters of Tampa Bay — compounds that can contaminate groundwater and affect human health.

"Labs are a good foundation, but this experience is priceless," he says. "This makes my experience richer. It gives me a better idea of the people I could be working with later on. I like the conversation you can have — the perspective and professional attitudes. I like being surrounded by people who have something meaningful to say all of the time."

Symonette devotes about 10 hours each week to the project. The extra hours, he says, actually help him keep up with his classes — microbiology, cellular biology and biochemistry. And, he says, they've opened his eyes to what his future may hold.

That's exactly the kind of experience Pollenz and university administrators are working to make available to all undergraduates.

"We have elevated and expanded our services," he says. "We are working to inspire and engage undergraduates to let them know there is a dedicated place for them — a place where we can answer their questions—a place where they can get started."

For Lee, who plans to be a pediatrician one day, the experience has been life-changing.

"It has been a fascinating, out-of-classroom experience," she says. "When you do research, you are learning for a lifetime, not just a semester."

Research Showcase

For senior William Carraher-Stross, the 2012 Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium was an opportunity to present his research on the microbial communities surrounding karst coastal regions and receive feedback from mentors, peers and the greater USF community.

Carraher-Stross was one of about 175 USF undergrads who put their research, artistic and technical abilities on display at the annual event in April.

Sponsored by the Office for Undergraduate Research (OUR), the colloquium is regarded as one of USF's top academic traditions. It serves as both a learning experience and an opportunity for students in all disciplines to demonstrate how they have incorporated research into their learning experience, says Richard Pollenz, director of the OUR.

Jackalynne DeLong, a psychology major with an interest in art history, presented her wetland computer constructed using real plants and a central processing unit to bring attention to the impact of human activities on the region's wetlands.

"A critical aspect of all research projects is presentation," says Pollenz. "The Undergraduate Research and Arts Colloquium provides a venue for students across all disciplines to obtain critical feedback on their work and develop their presentation skills that will give them a competitive advantage for jobs and graduate school admission."

And, an opportunity to transform their future.