Students use research opportunities to expand involvement in academics

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – One of the benefits students have at a major national research university like Penn State is not only learning from faculty in the classroom but also working alongside them -- in the laboratory or the library -- doing research. Undergraduate students who are conducting their own undergraduate research and those who hold research assistant positions have the opportunity to expand their knowledge in areas of academic interest while developing valuable research skills and relevant work experience.

Christine Theberge, a senior double-majoring in Spanish and communication sciences and disorders from Drexel Hill, Pa., has been an undergraduate research assistant for the Center for Language Science (CLS) for the past two years and recently completed her Schreyer Honors College honors thesis, also through the Center for Language Science. Theberge's research focuses on code-switching in Spanish-English bilinguals with the use of an eye-tracker.

"I took a Spanish linguistics class and was very interested in the subject matter," she explained. "At the end of the semester, my professor emailed me asking if I was interested in participating in research."

Josh Yeh, a senior majoring in material science and engineering from New Freedom, Pa., has been involved with undergraduate research since the summer following his freshman year, and has been working under Professor Erwin Vogler since his sophomore year.

"After participating in the Georgia Tech Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), I decided to become more involved in the research opportunities at Penn State," Yeh said. "I went online and browsed through the different profiles of each of the faculty members from the materials science and engineering department. I met Dr. Vogler and decided to work in his laboratory. I have worked with him ever since."

Yeh's current research focuses on providing an engineering pathway toward next-generation blood-compatible biomaterials used in medical devices such as heart pumps, heart valves and catheters. Yeh also is a Schreyer Honors College student who has recently completed his honors thesis and will be graduating in May with honors.

Undergraduate students can gain a variety of practical experience with laboratory equipment and software -- not to mention honing analytical and project management skills -- from their undergraduate research responsibilities.

"I have had many responsibilities including fixing and maintaining broken equipment and instruments, preparing and conducting experiments, analyzing data and leading a research project," Yeh said. "I also had the opportunity to mentor underclassmen and help graduate students get acquainted with our research and instrumentation."

Participating in undergraduate research can provide students with a clearer outlook on future career goals while creating awareness and appreciation of the significance of professional and academic research.

"Doing research as an undergraduate made me realize it's something I want to pursue after I graduate from Penn State," Theberge said. "Beyond that, it has shown me the importance of interdisciplinary research, as well as the clinical implications it can have in the real world."

"Being involved in undergraduate research has been very beneficial during my undergraduate studies," Yeh said. "I learned how to manage my time and to balance my social and academic life. Also, my research experience has shown me, and continues to show me, the numerous marvels that exist in nature and the necessity of science to improve the quality of life."

"Undergraduate research provides students with the excitement of discovery," said Mary Beth Crowe, assistant vice president and assistant dean for Undergraduate Education. "Students learn skills such as time management, communication, team work, problem solving and creative thinking through their undergraduate research opportunities."

The opportunity to participate in undergraduate research provides students with the chance to further their knowledge and skills in an area of interest while gaining the ability to set themselves apart from their peers based on their experience. Undergraduate research positions provide a more in-depth examination into the academic world and encourage growth and improvement. Penn State provides exceptional, wide-ranging opportunities for students interested in gaining top-quality research experience, and to add to that distinction, Penn State students are corporate recruiters' top choice for the most prepared and academically well-rounded graduates, according to a Wall Street Journal study.

"Any student given the opportunity to work in a research lab as an undergraduate should fully embrace it," Theberge suggested. "Everyone takes the same classes and has access to about an equal amount of information, but doing research can teach you a lot about your field and help you stand out amongst other students that haven't had those same experiences."

"My advice to the underclassmen is that it is never too early to do research," Yeh added. "It is important to find something to be passionate about, so that 'work' does not become a burden but, instead, a fulfilling and influential experience."

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Last Updated January 10, 2014