“Research.” The word can intimidate the young and old alike. Especially those with no experience conducting it. Which pretty much describes every freshman in a university setting.
But what happens when a student shakes their jitters long enough to embark upon a research journey?
Kendahl Servino, a sophomore biology major studying the intersection of science and art, discovered that she could prove the value of exploring multiple disciplines.
Esmeralda Cruz Lopez, a senior double major in women’s studies and sociology studying the happiness and strength of undocumented students, and Mufaro Hungwe, a senior kinesiology major studying biomechanics, discovered that they could garner their own financial support for their research — both were awarded Office of Undergraduate Research stipends.
Jennifer Jaimes, a senior hospitality major studying hospitality technology, discovered an additional research community awaiting her at the Honors College, where she engaged in the Research and Creative Honors Program.
Here’s more on the joys, challenges, and insights they gleaned from conducting research.
What’s the focus of your research?
Servino: I’ve been surveying professors and peers about what they think of when they hear the word “hand.” From there, I plan to create a series of pieces that depict the hand in conjunction with these various abstract ideas, juxtaposing those depictions with more anatomical, scientific paintings of the hand. The goal of the project is to illustrate how art can be a tool for learning scientific concepts and prove the value of exploring various disciplines.
Cruz Lopez: I study how undocumented students overcome educational barriers and explore the ways they remain joyful and resilient during the current anti-immigrant era.
Hungwe: My research took the form of a case study in kinesiology professor John Mercer’s lab that measured muscle activity during a sprint using electromyography, then considered how that activity was affected by the participant starting either with or without track spikes.
Jaimes: My research looks at the influences of different hotel technology amenities on booking decisions, with a specific focus on Generation Z. The goal is to identify and have a better understanding of how this generation will disrupt industry trends in regards to technology, given that they have never known a world without it. How far will they push it, with their high standards and expectations of what technology can and should do?
How did you get involved in your project?
Servino: Coming from a science background as a biology major but also having been an artist since childhood, I’m interested in how these two disciplines intersect. I entered the Life Is Beautiful student art competition last summer and won first prize, which gave me a glimpse of how I could pursue art during my college career. I presented my winning pieces at the UNLV Honors + Research Symposium last fall and realized I was interested in reaching out to people through my creative work, so I contacted the Office of Undergraduate Research for a consultation. Ultimately, I reached out to a faculty member in the arts department, Professor Doughty, who I thought would be a great fit, given what I had in mind.
Cruz Lopez: I learned about research through my sociology methods course but became involved because of my mentor, former UNLV sociology professor Anna Smeldey. I met her through my best friend, who was taking a sociology course of hers at the time. I told Professor Smedley I was interested in studying immigration—particularly undocumented students. About a week later, she invited me to work on her research project examining institutional activism, with an emphasis on UndocuNetwork, an undocumented-student led organization.
Hungwe: I’d always known I wanted to work in a human performance lab researching the design and physics of making apparel and athletic performance shoes. My dream is to work for Adidas, Nike, Under Armor, or New Balance in their lab, but I don’t yet have the necessary qualifications and experience. Kinesiology professor Sharon Jalene referred me to another kinesiology professor, John Mercer, who helped me conduct a research project that would ultimately set me up for my dream job.
Jaimes: I became aware of the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research at UNLV through the Research and Creative Honors Program. I wasn’t originally part of the Honors College, but conducting research enabled me to experience something new and join a new community in conjunction with my hospitality one. I’d initially mentioned that I was considering researching to hospitality professor Daniel McLean, and he helped me sort through potential fields of interest. Once I settled on hospitality technology, he introduced me to hospitality professor Mehmet Erdem, an expert in the field.
What have been the scariest and most fun aspects of participating in research as an undergraduate?
Servino: The struggle I’ve dealt with the most is being confident in my own abilities and taking the initiative to set out on this personal project. Unlike a typical research project involving a lab and other team members, mine is mostly a solo project, and it’s sometimes been scary reaching out to faculty members about resources because there’s the fear of rejection. What I’ve liked most about this project is that I've gotten to know my peers, professors, and myself better.
Cruz Lopez: I think the scariest thing is knowing that your project could be part of a conversation with major scholars in the field. It's also scary reading articles by yourself because you don't want to misinterpret a scholar's argument. But at the same time, reading has become one of the most fun things I’ve done because I’m reading about what I love. Interviewing people is also fun because you obtain a profound understanding of another person. It constantly reminds me of why I’m doing the work I’m doing, and it provides a lot of inspiration.
Hungwe: The scariest thing is not knowing whether the research will work out the way you anticipate. I had an idea of how the project was supposed to go, but I didn’t factor in the possibilities that I wouldn’t have enough participants or that the results wouldn’t be as conclusive as I’d hoped. The most fun thing was just being able to work in a research lab, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to present my research to students, faculty, and aspiring UNLV students, which is beyond rewarding.
Jaimes: The scariest thing about undergraduate research is not knowing what to expect. Everything about it is a learning opportunity. It can be daunting to realize that you don’t have a strong sense of what your project should look like or what you should be doing, but that’s also what makes it enjoyable. Your research is truly your own, and as you develop it, you grow with it, learning about new techniques and resources you didn’t know about before. You gain a better understanding of yourself as a scholar.
How has this work influenced your educational and/or professional goals?
Servino: I’ve learned about what I want out of my college experience and gained the confidence to pursue my interests. I’ve learned that studying biology, and eventually medicine, is not the only passion I’d like to pursue; being a scientist and an artist allows me to approach life and its problems from different angles.
Cruz Lopez: Participating in research has inspired me to apply to graduate school, as I’ve realized that the work I’m doing can be transformative. I now aspire to produce scholarly work that can inspire those who read it to take positive action.
Hungwe: As a track and field athlete and kinesiology major, this research project taught me new ways to improve as a sprinter and reinforced what I’d learned in class. It’s also fortified my dream to conduct research in a biomechanics lab designing high-quality athletic shoes and apparel. I’m more motivated than ever to work in this field, particularly because there aren’t many women in the industry, let alone African women. I would like to break down those barriers and help those back home who lack the resources we have in the United States.
Jaimes: I always had the ambition of pursing a doctorate at some point, but before I started my undergraduate research journey, I didn’t really know what that entailed. Undergraduate research provided me with a high level of clarity and understanding regarding the world of academic research. It gave me the confidence to know that I can pursue a doctorate. It might not be an easy journey—I don’t imagine research at any level is—but it is a very rewarding journey that allows you to see the impact of all your efforts.
What advice would you give undergraduates who haven’t taken the research plunge?
Servino: It can be daunting to take the initiative and reach out about research opportunities, but there’s a lot of valuable experience that comes out of it. Pursue any sort of ideas you have because in college, you’re surrounded by a plethora of resources and opportunities that you may not find later on.
Cruz Lopez: I would say take that plunge. Find a faculty member who will truly care about you and your academic career. Research whatever it is that sparks excitement in you, whatever it is you truly enjoy. I would advise seeking research funding and publishing opportunities too.
Hungwe: This is a great opportunity that students at other schools may not have, and the fact that we do—and have amazing professors at UNLV who want to see you succeed—is a huge benefit. We are more than students who go to class and go home. We are future researchers, leaders, and developers of innovations that the world hasn’t even thought about. Research is the best way to build your resume and jumpstart your career too!
Jaimes: Research is incredibly rewarding. It’s an opportunity to experience something new. It could help someone realize that research really isn’t for them. Or, if it is, that person will know more about what to expect if they continue on to higher levels of education. In either case, research provides a distinctive way to gain a better understanding of who you are and what you want to do.