Most students come to a university hoping to find opportunities to broaden their knowledge of their world, their career field, and of themselves.
And while many large “research” institutions make the claim that students can earn valuable research experience, the truth is the most educational, hands-on work is often reserved for graduate students - while undergrads are often left observing.
For students studying the sciences at Pittsburg State, however, there are opportunities abound to perform real research alongside seasoned professors and to be part of new discoveries.
Just ask Samantha Young, a senior biology major who was recently recognized at the 10th annual Kansas IDeA Network for Biomedical Research (K-INBRE ) Symposium in Kansas City. Last year, her research involved trapping and identifying tiny insects that might be able to transmit a disease in animals - something she hopes to prove as the project continues. Because the long-term goal of the project is to develop a vaccine, her work has important implications for both veterinary medicine and human health.
As a transferee from the University of Arkansas, Young said coming to PSU has been one of the “best transitions” she’s ever made.
“I’ve always been interested in entomology and have wanted to get my hands into something,” said Young, who paired up with Dr. David Gordon when she heard about the cutting-edge research he was doing with professors from Kansas State University. “It’s really hard to get involved at a big campus and to get access to learn things like this. I would never have had this opportunity somewhere else.”
Dr. Virginia Rider, PSU’s campus coordinator for K-INBRE (PSU is a participant in the state program, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health), said Pitt State has opted to use the nearly $1 million it has received from K-INBRE to fund undergraduates as they participate in research projects.
“Rather than our students working in part-time jobs that don’t relate to their education, we are giving them scholar awards to work in labs, which is so much more beneficial,” she said, adding that in 11 years more than 50 students have participated in the program, and nearly all now have careers in science. “A lot of colleagues outside of our state say ‘How can you use undergraduates for research?’ And I say universities are silly for not using them. Our students have coauthored publications and made great contributions to research. The students here are amazing. Out of everywhere I’ve taught they are by far the best I’ve ever seen.”
For Rider, an international award-winning biologist, it comes down to finding the funding to support those students - and investing the time to show them how proper research is done.
“I can’t explain how much fun it is to work in a lab,” she said. “Here, students get to do everything and they become competent and capable. I have had Ph.D. students and post-docs, and I’ve found the undergraduates here to be as good as any of them. It’s important that we mentor them - not only for the future of scientists but also the future of science. There’s no better way to hook someone to science forevermore.”
Christopher Nusbaum, a senior chemistry major and K-INBRE “Star Trainee” who was also recognized at the symposium, said his undergraduate research opportunities helped him land a $10,000 grant for the Kansas graduate school of his choice.
“Undergraduates having the opportunity to do research is one of the great advantages of PSU,” said Nusbaum, who spent eight years in the Navy before returning to college to pursue a career in biomedical science. His team’s research on the molecular biomarkers of cancer was (like Young’s) one of 10 projects selected this spring for the K-INBRE Award of Excellence.
“It’s not uncommon to hear about undergraduates from here getting their work published, and that’s not the case at other universities,” he said. “For me, the benefit is experience. There’s a big difference between learning about something in the classroom and going out and performing the research yourself. At PSU, students have the chance to do it.”