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January 9, 2023
The universe is full of mysteries. What worlds lie in galaxies beyond our own? Why was Stonehenge built? How do the connections in our brains really work?
Every day, countless theorists, analysts, investigators and more chase down answers to fascinating questions like these. But they aren't the only ones.
Students at colleges and universities across the globe are also hard at work researching some of humanity's biggest curiosities – and discovering new groundbreaking solutions.
On this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're on the hunt for answers about how students can make the most of research experiences while in college. We'll discuss what research opportunities look like for students of varying interests, the kinds of resources students should look for and how doing research as an undergraduate sets students up for success.
Our guest is is Margaret Marr, Bucknell’s director of undergraduate fellowship research.
If you have a question, comment or idea for a future episode, email email@example.com.
[00:00:07] BT: The universe is full of mysteries. What worlds lie in galaxies beyond our own? Why was Stonehenge built? How do the connections in our brains really work?
[00:00:17] BHA: Every day, countless theorists, analysts, investigators and more chase down answers to fascinating questions like these. But they aren't the only ones. Students at colleges and universities across the globe are also hard at work researching some of humanity's biggest curiosities.
[00:00:35] BT: And discovering new groundbreaking solutions. I'm Brooke Thames from Bucknell University. On this episode of College Admissions Insider, we're on the hunt for answers about how students can make the most of research experiences while in college.
[00:00:49] BHA: And I'm Becca Haupt Aldredge, also from Bucknell. Today, we'll discuss what research opportunities look like for students of varying interests, the kinds of resources students should look for and how doing research as an undergraduate sets students up for success.
[00:01:04] BT: Joining us is Margaret Marr, Bucknell’s director of undergraduate fellowship research. Margaret oversees the robust undergraduate research programs at Bucknell, and helps guide students as they pursue research opportunities across the university and beyond. Welcome to the podcast.
[00:01:18] MM: Oh, I'm delighted to be here. I'm just so pleased to talk to you about this enriching experience. Our students really benefit from it.
[00:01:26] BHA: Well, let's get started by, Margaret, can you tell us a little bit more about your role and how it supports students, as they pursue research opportunities at Bucknell?
[00:01:34] MM: Sure. I'm the director of the Office of Undergraduate Fellowships & Research at Bucknell. My office has two functions: One is to help students pursue research opportunities, and the other is to pursue fellowship opportunities like Rhodes, and Marshall, and Fulbright and that sort of thing.
With respect to research, my office helps to facilitate a multitude of programs that provide students with financial support and on-campus housing for them to engage in this undergraduate research scholarship and creative projects. I also support some programs that support students during the academic year, for students who are not earning academic credit for their research outside of their classes. I provide some financial support to students to work hourly on their research.
We have about 300 students here over the summer who are engaged in research full time. In the programs that I oversee, I assist students in meeting their living needs, expenses, as well as provide housing.
[00:02:28] BT: So as you mentioned, you oversee practically all of the research programs that Bucknell has across its three colleges — the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Management and our College of Engineering. But when we hear the word “research,” I'm sure the first thing that pops into a lot of people's heads is images of lab coats, and goggles, and really complicated science equipment. But what does research actually look like at a college or university, especially those with a high variety of academic disciplines?
[00:02:57] MM: Certainly, some of our students are wearing lab coats and little goggles, and are using some really fantastic equipment to enhance their knowledge and skills. But that's not all that's going on here. We have students who are writing plays, who are researching literature, who are investigating the lives and accomplishments of Bucknellians who served in World War I. We have students who are traveling the world to conduct their research, whether it's investigating gamelan music in Bali or seabirds in Alaska. We have students who are engaged in the library, in the art studio, in the laboratory and in the field, investigating questions that are really of interest to them.
[00:03:43] BHA: So we know that there's a variety of types of projects students can get involved in. At Bucknell, for example, students might work with a professor on a research project that they're conducting. Or a student might design a project all of their own based on their interests. Can you tell us more about the different kinds of research opportunities that exist for undergraduates?
[00:04:01] MM: So students can do research in their classes to start with. For example, they'll do cell culture projects in a biology, chemistry class throughout the semester. Or they can take research methods courses in anthropology, or political science, or education. So they do research in the context of their courses.
But then there's also a wide variety of ways for them to engage their curiosities outside of the classroom. One is through mentored research. Students who are paid with a research stipend design a research question of interest to them. Typically, it falls under the broad umbrella of the faculty members’ research interest. They and the faculty member identify some aspect of that that the student can work on uniquely and take agency over. That the student can sail or sink on their own, and the faculty member is there to support them — but their faculty member’s research agenda does not depend upon the student's success. They’re instead there to support their educational mission.
Then, having done research on campus under the mentorship of a faculty or a staff member, they become attractive candidates to do research off campus as well. For example, the National Science Foundation supports research experience for undergraduates in that, I want to say hundreds of universities across the country, they will support bringing together 10 or 12 students from across the country to engage in one research topic. For example, soil science at the University of Colorado Boulder. Or we had a student in physics at the University of Hawaii last summer on these kinds of things. Our students go to work with other faculty members across the country on their research grants, having benefited from the research skills that they've gathered at Bucknell.
[00:05:54] BT: So when it comes to students getting involved in the variety of opportunities that you've talked about so far, what does that actually look like? How does a student hop on a research project with a professor or get to go off campus to be a part of this kind of big project with a bunch of other students?
[00:06:10] MM: So when they get to campus, I encourage students, whether they come to Bucknell’s campus or anywhere else, to go to faculty members’ office hours. So wherever you go to college, I want you in the first three weeks to see each of your faculty members in their office hours and talk with them about your interests and their interests. They'll tell you about the research that they've done and what research questions that they're particularly interested in. If that resonates with you, you can talk about how you might be involved in that. Or you can say how that's related to the kinds of things that you're interested in, and those faculty members can introduce you to other faculty at the university that can support your interests.
You can also use the university's webpage to go through and look at each faculty member. Let's say you're a physics student, and you want to see what kind of research the faculty in the physics department are doing. You will go through and read about it. If it's of interest to you, then set up an appointment to go and chat with them.
If you're taking a class and you see something, read something that's of interest to you, you can try to delve in deeper. Ask your faculty member about that; “Is there anybody at the university that are investigating this question further or who might support me and my interest in trying to investigate this further?” They can introduce you to the faculty and staff who can support you.
You can talk to reference librarians who also know that the interests of the faculty at their university to get insight into who might be doing work in this area that could support you and your exploring the things that are of interest to you.
They can also introduce you to other folks in the community. So Bucknell, for example, works closely with Geisinger, a health care hospital in our vicinity. Our engineering and life-science students often work with the doctors and scientists at Geisinger to explore research interests of them. For example, they have autism research program there that multiple students have worked in in the last several years. Does that answer your question?
[00:08:22] BT: Yeah. That's a great overview of how students, once they're on campus, can start having conversations and digging into things that they're interested in and finding out what kind of projects or research opportunities that are there for them to explore. So now that we have a good idea of what's available and what's possible and how students can get access to those opportunities, let's dial in on what high schoolers should be keeping in mind as they build their list of choice schools. Are there certain resources or program characteristics that students with any research interest should look for and opportunities at the various schools that are they're adding to their apply lists?
[00:08:59] MM: Absolutely. Since undergraduate research is understood as a high-impact educational practice across higher education, no matter what school that you are considering, I would strongly encourage applicants to talk with the faculty in the fields of interest to them, whether that's sociology, or biology, or mechanical engineering, or physics, or mathematics. Talk to the faculty and ask them, “[Do] you engage undergraduates in research?” Particularly, at larger institutions, a lot of the research is done by graduate students, so the undergraduate students want to know how do undergraduates get involved in research at this institution.
Ask them, “What kinds of projects have you worked on recently with undergraduates? Are there opportunities for funding to support undergraduates to do research? How many students in a given year are funded, and what level of funding and support would the university expect to offer students? Are these opportunities available to students early in their careers, or do they need to be upper-division students?” Then when they talk to you and say, “Oh, we did this and that and the other thing,” ask about the students and ask them if you can meet the students who have been doing this undergraduate research and get a sense of what that student’s experience has been as an undergraduate researcher at that institution.
[00:10:16] BHA: I'm glad you highlighted on the size of an institution and the importance of asking how undergraduate students are supported and funded in research, knowing that that opportunity might not exist everywhere. Knowing that this podcast, while it's about college broadly, we're obviously all representing Bucknell. So that's the scope that we come from, understanding the value of a small, liberal arts education. I'm sure that low student-to-faculty ratio plays a role in students having accessibility to faculty to even have those conversations in the first place.
[00:12:40] BHA: For students, regardless of what subject they're studying, right — we know that research is available and accessible for students in a variety of majors. But for a lot of STEM majors in particular, research seems to be an essential component. Why should non-STEM students also think about research when they're coming to college, and why is it just as important of an opportunity for non-STEM students as well?
[00:13:05] MM: For the same reasons it's critical to STEM students, right? Whether you're a historian, a sociologist, an anthropologist, a musician, an artist, or a biologist, or an engineer, we're all about creating human knowledge and building beauty, right? We're all about making things the world a better place for all of us.
The way that we can do that is by exploring our curiosities. Whether that's creating a new musical composition, or a new collection of short stories, or a new understanding of what the great philosophers of years past have discovered, it’s all very much the same thing. It's about identifying as something that's of interest to you, something you're curious about, and having the initiative, the drive to go and find out more about it — to build that better symphony, to build that better engineering device, or to build the new biological discovery. Or as our students have found at Bucknell, a whole new species, right? Our students are out as undergraduates contributing to the store of human knowledge and human beauty.
[00:14:16] BT: Whether you're interested in science, the humanities, arts, or anything in between, Margaret, you've mentioned so many resources that are available to students when it comes to research. Is there anything else that students should be aware of or looking at when they're pursuing undergraduate research?
[00:14:42] MM: So one of the key things that you get by doing undergraduate research is developing a really cherished relationship with your research mentor — something that can be lifelong, and someone who will be your advocate not only as an undergraduate but when you go to apply for graduate school or career opportunities. Who will show up at your wedding and your baby showers down the line because you have built this really strong intellectual relationship with a faculty member.
One of the great things about a smaller institution like Bucknell is that our students and our faculty can build those kinds of long-term relationships that both our students and our faculty cherish for their lives.
[00:15:25] BHA: So you've talked about cultivating new knowledge in the world, creating beauty in the world and, really, this sense of wonder, and excitement, and curiosity that we're able to foster with research. If we shift our perspective a little bit, what are some of the practical outcomes in engaging in research? You mentioned it's a high-impact practice. Are students able to present their findings at conferences or even be published, and how might that impact their futures?
[00:15:55] MM: There’s so much to be gleaned from doing research, and it's transferable to anything that you would ever go on to do. So if you go on to publish your research, that's great. You can go to conferences to make poster presentations or oral presentations. We have students who present locally, regionally, nationally, internationally. We had a student go to Rome. We've had a group of students go to Japan to present their research. Often have students go to Canada to present their research. New York, San Francisco, San Diego — we have students going all over the place to present their research and to learn from others who are presenting there as well.
But even if the student wouldn't go on to present beyond our Bucknell campus, there's so much to learn from undergraduate research. When you engage in research, you are asking a question that, typically, others haven't asked before or haven't asked in that way before. That, inevitably, is going to lead you to confront problems that you didn't anticipate, right? That's the nature of the research process or the creative inquiry process. In confronting those problems and finding a way around, over, through, under, whatever those problems, you become a problem solver, right?
You identify analytical techniques to address the problem. You have the perseverance to make it through the problem to a solution. You develop communication skills and teamwork skills. You are able to identify resources that you need in order to answer this problem. I've had students learn statistics because they needed it in order to complete their biological research. Whatever the problem is, you find a solution, and you implement it. Well, if you're a problem solver, there isn't anybody that doesn't want to have you on their team, right? You are now a valuable asset to any team that you could join because you have the skills to go about problem solving.
If you're an employer and you're looking at two candidates, one is the demonstrated problem solver and one who hasn't yet, you're going to go with the problem solver, right? So by engaging in an undergraduate research, even if you decide you don't want to go on to become a researcher as a career, you are now a more valuable asset to whatever else is you want to do.
[00:18:10] BT: That process from asking a question that's never been asked before to finding a solution really takes time. Something that I've observed from talking to our students here is that being able to start research as early on in their career as the summer before their first semester, in some cases, really allows them to dig deep into that experience, in that exploration.
But that's not the case, everywhere at every institution. So why is the chance to jump into research early on at a college or university significant, and what difference does that make in the grand scheme of a student's college education?
[00:18:44] MM: Well, in all things, early starts are a good thing, right? The early bird gets the worm. So the earlier you can start exploring your curiosity, the further along you can progress in developing the skills needed to answer those questions or to delve into that question that you're interested in. So by starting in the summer before you start college, or within the first two years of college, that then opens up the opportunity for you to take your research skills off campus — whether in another research institution, or in a national lab, or in an internship setting, or in a think tank. That person, that place might be someplace in the United States or some ways across the globe. You're now opening up doors and opportunities for you to explore as an undergraduate, and also then go on, after your undergraduate experience, to go on to graduate school, to go to work for those kinds of think tanks and national labs, and to further explore what you're interested in.
So the sooner you get started, the sooner you learn the self confidence that, “Not only can I ask this question, but I can pursue answers to these questions that I have. I can take the initiative to learn when I want to know and find answers that no one else has found the answers to.” The stronger candidate you're going to be in no matter what it is that you want to do.
[00:20:03] BHA: So we know our students are empowered through undergraduate research to ask difficult questions, and seek new answers, and make discoveries that may not have been found before — or questions that may have yet to even be asked. Some of those skills that they're gaining as problem solvers can parlay into postgraduate opportunities like Fulbright Scholarships. How do you, Margaret, help students make the most of their undergraduate experience in their lives after college?
[00:20:34] MM: Well, our students who have engaged in research as undergrads have become attractive candidates for these kinds of fellowships that my office also support students in applying for. You mentioned Fulbright. We have students that have engaged in research — quantum physics in Europe, for example, in Austria, at the University of Vienna to be specific. We have students that have won a Gates Cambridge award who are now doing neuroscience research into autism at Cambridge University, in combination with the National Institutes of Health. We have students who have earned the Goldwater Scholarship, which recognizes them for their outstanding promise to become research scientists in the STEM fields.
Similarly, there's an award called the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program, which provides over $100,000 for students to pursue graduate school in the STEM fields and social sciences. Again, we've had multiple winners from Bucknell to compete in that competition.
Similarly, the Beinecke Scholarship supports students in the arts, humanities and social sciences, and recognizes students who are likely to go on to become phenomenal scholars in their fields. We have had multiple winners in that contest as well.
So students who engage in research…Brooke, you asked earlier about what good does it do to get started early in your career, and one of the things is by doing research early in your career, you can demonstrate your mettle and become a strong candidate for these kinds of scholarships and fellowships down the line.
[00:22:18] BT: Yeah. Like you said, Margaret, those problem-solving skills and the things that you learn in those experience are really, really lifelong skills that you carry with you, no matter where your journey leads.
[00:22:28] MM: And leadership skills, right? So what distinguishes a leader from a non-leader is not only they see a problem, they see a question, but they take the initiative to find an answer to it.
[00:22:42] BT: Well, I, for one, have learned so much about not only the opportunities that exist at Bucknell, but what students in high school should be looking for in resources and opportunities at the various schools on their list. Margaret, as we've talked, I think every minute of this podcast has served to answer this last question that we're going to ask. But to sum it all up here, let's leave this conversation with a bird's-eye view of why research is so important at the college level.
[00:23:09] MM: Engaging in research, which we understand to mean also artistic endeavors, as well as scholarly endeavors in the humanities and in the social sciences. So engaging in these kinds of activities allows you to take the concepts that you're learning in your classes and apply them in a concrete fashion. That gives meaning to the information that you're gaining in your classes.
We find the students who engage in undergraduate research, as a consequence, have improved academic performance above those who do not. We see that engaging in research teaches valuable transferable skills, particularly around problem-solving, but also analytical skills, teamwork skills, communication skills and leadership skills. It creates cherished long-term relationships with a faculty member or a staff member that can last a lifetime. It opens doors to opportunities, off-campus research and internships, as well as graduate school and career opportunities.
All around, it's a win-win for all concerned, and I encourage students at Bucknell and across the globe to engage in undergraduate research and to pursue their curiosities at their earliest opportunity.
[00:24:20] BT: Seeking to build beauty, right?
[00:24:21] MM: Indeed.
[00:24:22] BT: Well, thanks again, Margaret, for chatting with us today.
[00:24:25] MM: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the opportunity to spread the good word about undergraduate research, and I encourage all students to engage in it. Thanks for having me.
[00:24:35] BHA: Thanks for being here. We also want to thank everyone out there listening. If you're a fan of the podcast, please take a moment to rate, subscribe and share this episode with the students in your life.
[00:24:45] BT: We'll be back with another episode in a few weeks. In the meantime, send your questions, comments and episode ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. We read every note you send.
[00:24:54] BHA: Finally, you're invited to follow Bucknell on your favorite social media apps. Just look for @bucknellu on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok. You can also follow our student-run Instagram account, which is @iamraybucknell.
[00:25:11] BT: You’re sure to see a lot of interesting posts about what students are working on in their research there. Until next time, keep on reaching for your dreams and your dream school.
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