Since the office of undergraduate research (OUR) opened its doors in January 2015, hundreds of UNLV students have teamed up with some of the university’s most prominent scientists and scholars on projects of discovery, innovation, and creativity — projects that change for the better the way both faculty and students think about higher education.
“We are truly championing a culture that is open to new ideas and collaboration while valuing our diversity and unique academic strengths,” said UNLV President Len Jessup. “I am consistently impressed by the innovation and creativity of our undergraduate students, and even more amazed at how well UNLV’s research community fosters and promotes their contributions.”
The office matches students with faculty mentors, professional development opportunities, and project funding. In spring 2016 alone, more than 600 undergraduates worked alongside faculty research mentors. Students have contributed to investigations seeking HIV/AIDS therapies, solutions to Nevada’s water crisis, methods for tissue regeneration, and other high-profile undertakings.
“My mentor, Dr. (Ai-Sun) Tseng, always encouraged me,” said Diana Peña, a UNLV Honors College double major in biology and psychology. Peña’s work in Tseng’s biology lab earned Peña the 2016 OUR Undergraduate Scholar Award and two rounds of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), and she was named one of UNLV’s Outstanding Graduates at May commencement. “Having Dr. Tseng as a principal investigator helped me feel a lot more comfortable approaching faculty because the relationship that we formed was so supportive.”
Liam Frink, anthropology professor and OUR’s founding director, said it’s not at all unusual for students such as Peña to report positive experiences, both academically and professionally. “Research is fun, but it’s also essential for students’ professional development,” Frink says. “That’s really what we’re dedicated to in this office.”
Professional development involves acquiring hands-on, practical skills alongside dedicated faculty, a process that prepares students to make real contributions. Just ask Corby Hovis, program director at the National Science Foundation and a guest speaker at a previous UNLV Undergraduate Research Forum.
“If you look at many of the pioneering papers that result from NSF research, you’ll find undergraduate authors on those papers, and some of those have been great discoveries that have won Nobel Prizes,” Hovis said.
Research administrators such as Tom Piechota, former vice president of research and economic development at UNLV, say this potential is why supporting undergraduate researchers with adequate funding is a priority.
“I’ve worked time and again with UNLV undergrads; I know all they are capable of and their talent never ceases to amaze me,” Piechota said. “So we’ve made it top priority through OUR to ensure these gifted students receive the funding they need to succeed.”
Frink said OUR is seeking external grants — including one from the W. M. Keck Foundation, one of the nation’s largest philanthropic grant-making organizations — and growing internal funds. A partnership, for example, between OUR and the university’s undergraduate student government, CSUN, recently yielded a few new funding opportunities for undergraduates. CSUN provided a stipend for students who might not otherwise be able to engage in a research project without additional employment, funding for two scholarships, and a travel-grant match program that provides funds to match OUR’s travel support for undergraduate researchers seeking to participate in academic conferences.
“A strong research program at the university trickles down to every part of our campus, and that is why I am so passionate about investing in it,” said Fabian Donate, chair of the CSUN’s Scholarships and Grants Committee. “Investing in research at the undergraduate level in particular leads to job creation. Students gain valuable experience from it, can apply to graduate schools, and often develop new concepts. Funding from CSUN, OUR, and others makes all that possible. What better way to showcase our capabilities than by recognizing the very same individuals who make up who we are as an institution?”
New OUR initiatives include developing an undergraduate research registry that will enable student researchers to complete required training online in matters such as lab safety and human subjects protocol. OUR also is working to more effectively integrate students with disabilities into research activities, part of its ongoing effort to attract a diverse cross-section of students into UNLV’s research endeavor. The office is collecting data on the impacts of UNLV’s undergraduate research as well.
“Our undergraduates have access to deep, broad, and highly compelling educational experiences because we focus on both research and student success at UNLV,” said Diane Chase, executive vice president and provost. “Both components are equally important in our Top Tier initiative, and the office of undergraduate research not only drives both, but also embodies the vision and spirit of these ideals. I’m impressed by what this office has accomplished thus far and look forward to seeing all it accomplishes in the future.”