Keith Murphy of Massapequa, a cell and molecular biology major, works in the Science 3 laboratory of Susannah Gal, associate professor of biological sciences. Murphy is one of the students taking part in the Howard Hughes Medical Institute program.
Photo by Jonathan Cohen
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Undergraduate research is thriving at Binghamton University, as 27 undergraduates work on 14 different research projects begun in May, funded by a $1.4 million, four-year grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to support interdisciplinary research for undergraduate majors in science and engineering and to develop scientific leaders of the future.
Binghamton is one of 50 universities, including Harvard, Yale and Cornell, to have received the funding.
Working with faculty and graduate student mentors, the undergraduates conducted research throughout the summer and will continue working on their projects through the 2011-2012 academic year.
“They’ve bonded very well,” said Anna Tan-Wilson, distinguished teaching professor of biological sciences and HHMI program director. Results of the collaborations so far were evident when the undergraduates reported on their progress at an end-of-summer poster session.
Jay Jaiantilal, a senior mechanical engineering major, is working with faculty mentors Carol Miles in biological sciences and Quang Su in mechanical engineering on a project to understand the biological and mechanical systems that allow insects to use vibrational signals to localize mates. He applied to the HHMI program to broaden his experiences. “I was drawn to the interdisciplinary aspects of the program and the ability to intermingle with others who think scientifically, but in a different way,” he said.
Nora Holt, a junior geology major, was interested in gaining research experience. Working with faculty mentors Tim Lowenstein in geology and J. Koji Lum from anthropology and biological sciences, she’s doing graduate-level research on the chemistry of ancient seawater and ancient microbes and plans to do an honor’s thesis on the results.“This is a great opportunity to get me more involved,” she said. Her undergraduate team member, junior biological sciences major Gabriel Wolfson, was actually working on the project last year. “I really wanted the research experience and can continue it now because it was funded,” he said.
“I’ve never seen an undergraduate poster session where the students were so well prepared to discuss their posters,” said Nancy Stamp, dean of the Graduate School and co-program director. “Interestingly, the students were both confident about their presentations and humbled by the realization that their projects were just the beginning of something bigger.”
Tan-Wilson served as a matchmaker of sorts for many of the projects, pairing up faculty from the different disciplines. “We have five brand-new faculty in this group,” she said. “And we also had about 90 applications from students. A committee interviewed all of them, and then the faculty mentors held interviews and made the final selection of two students for each of the projects, half of them from groups underrepresented in these disciplines.”
“All of the faculty with whom I spoke were very pleased with their undergraduates, and I think some were even a little surprised at how hard the students worked and what they had accomplished,” said Stamp. “One said that the two undergrads were unstoppable; one had discovered a ‘breakthrough’ piece of information that had stymied the lab group and the other wasn’t put off by anything she didn’t know, she ‘elbowed her way into every problem’.”
The experience has been a positive one for the graduate student mentors as well, Stamp said. “They realized this was training for them that would be useful, and that the undergraduates hadn’t been a drain on them.”
As for the undergraduates, the interdisciplinary nature of the projects posed challenges. Some told Stamp they needed to work past the jargon of the differing disciplines. “They said it was a revelation to them to see the faculty during joint lab meetings talk past each other in their disciplines’ jargon,” she said. “The undergraduates said they knew then how very important it was to create ‘common ground’ − one of the themes they had discussed in preparing for their projects.”