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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Research opportunities offer undergraduate students invaluable experiences

Despite obstacles in application process, researchers see benefits that reach beyond the classroom

UC Davis is widely renowned as one of the top public research institutions in the world, offering fields of concentration ranging from food science to religious studies. As a university that conducts research conducted by faculty in all sorts of fields, students are offered unique opportunities to get involved with research — allowing them a chance to delve further into their interests and develop skills that can’t be taught in a classroom setting. 

Undergraduate students typically find positions assisting current graduate students or professors who are involved in their own research, but research positions can vary in the form of internships, fieldwork or even leading their own projects. The research work helps students expand on information from their classes through real-life application of concepts.

Ethan Lindgren, a fourth-year psychology major, works as a research assistant in the vitreoretinal lab at the UC Davis Medical School. He finds that his work at the lab deepens the knowledge he gains through his classes. 

“Research is basically where you can kind of mess around and apply what you’re learning in a more practical sense,” Lindgren said. “For certain science classes, you have a lab where you apply what you learn in those classes, but those labs are kind of narrow and they don’t go into that much depth. Whereas in a research laboratory, you kind of get a more expansive view of what you can learn about school.”

Oftentimes, the work that undergraduate students do as part of the research teams are essential to the project itself. Carlyn Peterson, an animal biology Ph.D candidate who received both her bachelors and masters degrees from UC Davis, says that undergraduate students are a big part of the innovative work she’s done in dairy cattle nutrition and environmental management.

“There’s no way that I could do everything that has to be done in a live animal trial, so they help with all the day-to-day tasks — feeding all the animals, executing the research tasks, monitoring those animals, making sure they’re healthy, helping me enter all the data, helping me look at the data, make graphs, do a literature search, all those sorts of things,” Peterson said.

Some students, however, say contacting and starting a dialogue with individuals on campus spearheading research efforts can be difficult — especially because the application process differs for each research position offered. Lindgren, for example, found his current position with the medical school through Handshake, but his previous attempts at finding a position were not as successful.

“I’ve emailed professors multiple times and they’ve never emailed me back,” Lindgren said. “And I’ve interviewed with professors and not gotten positions, so it was definitely not easy. It’s a big school and it’s pretty competitive, so it’s not particularly easy to get involved.”

These difficulties in finding and applying for research opportunities pose as an obstacle for undergraduates, but Peterson said a lot of undergraduates don’t utilize the potential research network they have right within their grasp: graduate students. 

“Undergrads are generally in contact with grad students, almost everyday, and all of the grad students that they work with will have done research or will have to do research at some point, so the first point of contact is always reaching out to the TAs,” Peterson said. “Maybe their TA isn’t currently doing research, but there are other grad students that I work with that I can get some of those students in contact with those other resources. So it’s all about their network, and they have a huge network that they often don’t look into, which is their TAs that they have currently.”

While many undergraduates fill the research assistant roles of many large-scale projects, they can also show initiative within the project and expand their role for their own personal growth. Ke Huang-Isherwood, who currently works on projects with the Department of Communications after receiving her masters degree from UC Davis last year, recalled one such undergraduate student she had worked with on a study that looked at violence in video games and its impact on game players.

“As students, there’s an opportunity to try to become more engaged,” Huang-Isherwood said. “One of the undergraduate student research assistants took the initiative of participating in the undergraduate research conference. She took the initiative of taking a piece of that study, a piece of the video game and she ended up presenting that technical part of how it worked.”

Hosted annually by the undergraduate research center, the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activities Conference allows 700 students to present their work. The center offers other resources, including a chance for students to have their work published through the school’s multidisciplinary undergraduate research journal, Explorations. The California Aggie reached out to the undergraduate research center for comment, but the center was unavailable due to a lack of staff. 

The potential benefits of research, however, reach far beyond the publication of someone’s work. Peterson, who has been involved with undergraduate education for several years as a TA consultant, views research as a crucial opportunity for undergraduates to explore possible career trajectories.

“Education outside of the classroom is just as important if not more important for students to get while they’re in school and there’s so much opportunity to do that,” Peterson said. “Not only does it tell them what they want to do as a career — maybe they want to go into research — but it could also tell them what they don’t want to do, and what they don’t want as a career, which is just as important for figuring out what you want to do for your life.”

Prior to receiving her masters in communications at UC Davis, Huang-Isherwood received her J.D. at the University of Minnesota, and her perspective highlighted the role of undergraduate research in helping guide students on their career trajectory. 

“When I was an undergrad, I didn’t do much research,” she said. “But I think that if I had done it, I would have realized that I liked research earlier, and then maybe wouldn’t have required me to go through a professional degree to figure it out. Of course, there’s a lot to do as an undergraduate student, and you can’t do everything, but if possible, try to get some research experience while you are still a student and can easily get credit without as much pressure as a graded course.”

While reflecting on his research work as a student, Lindgren described the value of his experience, echoing both Peterson and Huang-Isherwood’s views on the importance of undergraduate research.

“I definitely enjoy it, and it’s not like the classroom, it’s less structured and it’s definitely pretty valuable just because everyday you get to do something new,” Lindgren said. “It’s one of the most valuable parts of my education and my time here at Davis, without a doubt.” 

Written by: Lei Otsuka — features@theaggie.org


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