This morning while reading through my twitter feed I came upon a discussion about why individuals with PhDs are moving away from the university track and into different types of careers. You can read the blogs posts at Scicurious and Perlstein and Easternblot. Two sentences in Scicurious’s post mention the lack of instruction and opportunity for conducting unique research and it got me thinking about my undergraduate experience.
Every class in the UCA biology department involved some type of independent research. Culturing (we need how many agar plates?!) and identifying bacteria found on everyday surfaces (My throat. What? I use it every day.) Conducting a plant population study (we need how many transects?!) for acreage placed into a mitigation bank. Developing a stream restoration (capacity ≠ discharge, capacity ≠ discharge, capacity ≠ discharge) project within the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve. Mini projects such as does vinegar deter mosquitos from ovipositing? (no) and do sun-grown linden trees have higher stomatal density than shade-grown linden trees? (maybe)
Most of these research projects were focused on learning a specific skill such as how to conduct research, design a project, conduct statistical analysis, conduct a prescribed burn, or write a proper scientific report. In entomology class we were learning about hormones that effect whether a nymph will metamorphose into a larger instar or an adult. I spoke up saying, “I want to grow really big bugs!” The professor offered then and there to allow me lab space next semester to try it. Alas I was graduating and did not get to take him up on his offer. He will be pleased to know that on my own I learned about the Square-cube law and now know that there is a limit to the size of bug I could have grown.
The stream restoration was a complete foray into restoration ecology. We conducted historical analysis of an ecosystem, designed a restoration project, and worked as a team in deciding what were the most important issues to address in this restoration. We took preliminary data on biotic and abiotic conditions in the streams, assessed riparian vegetation, and even designed a community garden; complaining the whole way “we can’t do all this work in a semester.” But we did it!
An important takeaway for me from this experience was how challenging it can be to effectively communicate with a research team. The restoration project team was composed of undergrads and grad students, environmental science majors and pre-vet majors, traditional students and non-traditional students. Some of us wanted to work with animals, some of us with people, and some preferred to never interact with a living thing. Our schedules never matched so managing times to get together required flexibility, patience and a lot of texting. The professors were always there to keep us on track, to keep us motivated, and to keep us from killing each other.
The best part of the past 3 years by far is that all of my professors are passionate about their work and equally passionate about teaching. They laugh at us. They laugh with us. They take students into the field as often as possible. If you are lucky enough to take a summer class (I took plant taxonomy), you can count on being in the field 3 to 4 days a week. Students are encouraged to work on their own both in the lab and in the field. If a different or new type of equipment is needed the professors ensure that it is available. There were times when we got to keep a piece of equipment for the entire semester.
The blog post links in the first paragraph are about making career changes and how difficult that can be. It was just a couple of sentences in the middle of one post that got me thinking about how fortunate I was and I wanted to let everyone know. I understand that there are many programs in which students are used to further the professor’s work. I also know there are many schools where undergraduates are not afforded the opportunity to learn how to conduct research.
A big thank you to all my professors in the biology department at UCA! (I formally apologize for using wikipedia as a source.)