Lab partners:

Students and faculty unite on research

By Jeff Walberg

Jai Shanata ’05 is in his second year of a Ph.D. program in chemistry at Caltech. One might expect that the leap from a small liberal arts college to one of the world’s premier research universities—Caltech boasts 32 Nobel Prizes—would be challenging.

On the contrary, says Shanata, who spent two summers in Professor Charley Liberko’s research lab.

“Cornell’s One Course At A Time (OCAAT) schedule and the intensive focus of a summer research project both prepare students well for the intensive engagement required by graduate studies—and that gave me a taste of what being in a Ph.D. program in chemistry is like,” he says. “For me, the combined experiences in coursework and summer research at Cornell made me fall in love with chemistry.”

Undergraduate research has become increasingly important for gaining admission to graduate schools. Liberko calls Shanata an “outstanding” student, but adds, “In my memory, every student who has wanted to go on to grad school has been accepted somewhere. The recommendation letters we write carry tremendous weight. We can say that a student shows critical thinking skills, the ability to work independently, and has been successful in a research environment. This helps a student’s chances enormously when applying to schools.”

Cornell research is 'authentic'

Jeff Cardon, professor of biology and chemistry, says that research experiences available at Cornell are not only high quality, but generally more authentic and valuable than those provided at larger schools.

“At research universities, by and large, undergrads are given a very well-defined task without much opportunity to really troubleshoot,” he says. “Most don’t learn what it’s like to actually be a grad student. Here students have more independence in the day-to-day research decisions, which is closer to the graduate school experience.”

At the core of the Cornell summer research experience is a close working relationship between faculty and students, usually in no more than a one-to-two ratio. Research at Cornell is designed primarily as an educational process.

Students quickly learn that research is not easy and professors don’t have all the answers. Frustration and even failure are inherent in the process, and the faculty often use this as a teaching tool.

“Students will come to you with an experimental design and it has flaws,” says biology Professor Craig Tepper. “I find that if you correct the flaws for them, they don’t learn to design well-controlled experiments. But if you allow them to run the experiments they have designed and to analyze their results, they quickly realize the design problems on their own. There’s a cost to your research program using this strategy and allowing students to flounder. But in turn students learn how to think, and I believe that’s one of the most important aspects of undergraduate student-faculty research.”

In this way, Cornell students develop strong research skills, which Tepper says also benefits those who choose not to pursue a graduate degree. For example, he notes that students do very well getting hired into biology labs straight from Cornell.

“Our students have thought about science in a meaningful way,” Tepper says. “Interviewers are often astonished at how well-prepared our students are for real lab work.”

Faculty benefit too

Research is not just for students; it also provides professional development for faculty. While Cornell has little of the “publish or perish” pressure that exists at larger schools, tangible results do play a part in the process.

In chemistry Professor Cindy Strong’s lab, she and her students are working to create a protein mutation that may be linked to the neuromuscular disease ALS. Success would mean making a real contribution to a better understanding of the disease.

“Engagement with students is really important, and sometimes it’s easy to get too caught up in results,” Strong says. “But I think it’s also important for students to see that I care about this, and that results really do matter.”

Sue Astley, professor of psychology, studies pigeons to better understand a subtle form of memory discovered in humans with severe memory loss due to brain injuries. Astley’s lab is one of only three in the world working with animals to study this phenomenon, and she relies partially on external funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

“I really have to publish our results,” Astley says. But it’s not simply a matter of fulfilling the expectations of the NIH, she adds.

“Writing articles and getting feedback help me think more deeply,” she says, “and so does the process of writing the grant proposals themselves.”

Astley balances the drive for results with meetings with her research students to discuss their goals in life. She offers advice on negotiating the demands of graduate school and also counsels students on finding balance between their professional and personal lives.

Not just summer and science

Undergraduate research happens not only in the sciences and social sciences, nor only in the summer. Many students pursue research opportunities during regular courses, research methods courses, and independent study blocks. Many students have presented their findings at the campus Student Symposium each spring for the past 10 years.

Chicago’s Newberry Library has offered research opportunities and support to the Associated Colleges of the Midwest since 1965, and the program meshes well with Cornell’s OCAAT schedule.

Katy Stavreva, professor of English, taught her Medieval and Renaissance Drama class at the Newberry in 2003 and 2006. Stavreva calls the library “one of three treasure troves in North America for texts of this era.”

Stavreva says that students are overwhelmed at first as she guides them into the vast archives to view medieval manuscripts and rare books published shortly after the invention of the printing press. But they quickly become immersed in a “research lifestyle” and in three weeks produce original work that Stavreva often cites in her own scholarly writing.

“We show each other what we’ve just found and share the joy of discovery,” Stavreva says. “The students also learn the value of an intellectual community—it’s not just me and them, but librarians, scholars, guest speakers—a wider community of support. They learn the ethos of working with others.”

Santhi Hejeebu, professor of economics and business, will lead a group of students to the Newberry to study historical entrepreneurship through the lens of Chicago’s Pullman Company.

“The students will all be doing primary research, asking questions that have never been asked before,” says Hejeebu.

Hejeebu says that she is constantly seeking to develop experiential learning opportunities by creating contexts and posing questions that relate to her own expertise.

“We should play to our strengths as faculty members,” she says. “Grad school taught us to raise and attempt to answer original questions. You want the best students to have that kind of challenge. They are already such good learners.”

Dean of the College Brenda Tooley believes professors are right on target when they approach learning through this type of apprenticeship model. And she especially encourages faculty-student collaborations in disciplines where scholarly work is traditionally a solo affair.

“Hands-on, experiential immersion is the thing to do—that’s how people learn,” she says. “Education is about changing ways of thinking, and you can’t do that just by sitting in class and taking notes.”