In Chennai, India, temperatures soar to their highest at a time that locals call Agni Nakshatram, which translates literally to “fiery star.” In these months, it’s not rare for the weather to reach upwards of 108 degrees. The summer of 2010, My Hua, then a 19-year-old sophomore at UC Riverside, plunged into the sweltering heat and unrelenting humidity of the southern Indian city. The English and biology double major was there with Unite For Sight, a nonprofit organization dedicated to delivering eye care to impoverished villages around the world. With doctors and volunteers such as Hua, the organization screened for operable cataracts and other treatable eye diseases.
Not long after Hua was back stateside, her mother lost vision in one eye. “My trip to India and my mother are the reasons for appreciating what I have — and are also the reasons that I started thinking of what I can do [in the realm of] health care,” Hua said. That thirst to do more made her question what she could personally do. The answer? She says, “It was research, unexpectedly.”
Now 23, Hua has been mentored by Professor Prue Talbot of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience for the past four years, studying potential harm from e-cigarettes. She has published two of her research papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals as a first author, which is no small feat, for an undergraduate. She’s also received the Chancellor’s Research Fellowship — twice.
The Chancellor’s Research Fellowship
Begun in 2012, Chancellor’s Research Fellowship (CRF) is a competitive program that supports undergraduates who take part in faculty-mentored research and creative projects. The program selects 12 participants who are expected to participate in various events throughout the academic year. Each recipient is awarded $5,000 for materials, supplies, and travel expenses to study a topic of their choosing. At the end of the year, the students present their topics at the Annual UCR Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity Symposium.
“You really develop skills like patience and humor because of the way research works — or doesn’t, no matter how well you plan it.”
After Hua graduates in June, she wants to go back to school to become a physician-scientist, by getting a combined M.D.-Ph.D. “I went back on the plane from India thinking, when I go back to the lab, I really want to put in 150 percent because I don’t want to live my life regretting something I didn’t do,” she continues. “Since I have all these opportunities, I must take advantage of everything that I can.”
Hua is just one slice of this year’s remarkable crop of CRF recipients, but she’s also a part of a larger, outstanding group of undergraduate students at UC Riverside participating in research at large.
Of course, there are many available research opportunities on campus for students pursuing advanced degrees. But what makes UC Riverside unique is the large variety of campus-sponsored programs that help students embark on their own research even before they have earned a bachelor’s degree.
Just a few of these programs include the Bourns College of Engineering Undergraduate Research Opportunities, Minority Access to Research Careers, Mentoring Summer Research Internship Program, Medical Scholars Program, UC Leadership Excellence through Advanced Degrees, College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Dean’s Fellowship, Gluck Fellows Program, California Alliance for Minority Participation, University Honors Program, and Undergraduate Education Quarterly Research/Creative-Activity Mini Grants.
Research Develops Student Skills
“Undergraduate research is one of the most important ways that students have to really develop their thinking, their writing, their data analysis skills,” explains Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Steven Brint. “All of these types of skills are important later in life, whether people become researchers or not.” Undergrads also gain guidance from being in touch with faculty; the mentored experiences are positive in most cases, Brint says. “It’s become more common at UCR,” he adds.
The most extraordinary aspect may be the sheer percentage of students participating in some type of research program. In the 2012-2013 academic year, 4,053 students —that’s 21.8 percent of 18,536 total undergraduates — participated in research under faculty mentorship, with 248 participating in more than one activity.
Hua has been mentored by Professor Prue Talbot of the Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience for the past four years, studying potential harm from e-cigarettes.
By the time they reach graduation, more than 50 percent of UCR undergraduates will have participated in research or creative projects. Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox would like to see even more participation: so much so that he and his wife Diane Del Buono recently created a new scholarship for CRF with a personal gift of $100,000.
“Diane and I have felt such a warm welcome from the UCR community, including from our fantastic students, and we noted that about 60 percent of undergraduates are first in their families to seek a degree,” said Wilcox, who himself is a first-generation college graduate. “Diane and I want to make sure that we leave a legacy here, and that all of our undergraduate students have access to research opportunities that can transform their personal and professional aspirations.”
“If you have a group of students and you want to tell them about baseball, you don’t sit in a lecture hall and map out the field.”
“Science is not about the known, it’s about what we don’t know,” says Distinguished Professor of Genetics Susan Wessler. A pioneer in introducing actual hands-on experimental research to first-year students, Wessler teaches the Dynamic Genome course, which has first-year students using cutting-edge technology to conduct genomics research. Aside from attending biology lectures, her students design experiments, parse data, debate results, master concepts and nurture their own passion for discovery.
“The focus is for students to experience the excitement of scientific research early in their careers,” she explains. “If you have a group of students and you want to tell about baseball, you don’t sit in a lecture hall and map out the field,” Wessler adds. “You give them a bat and ball and you have them play! What is exciting about science is participating in scientific experiments.”
The benefits of undergraduate research go beyond academia. Students who decide not to continue with careers in research walk away from their experience with qualities procured well beyond the pages of a textbook or the boundaries of a lecture hall.
“Not all undergraduate researchers go on to get Ph.Ds. They may go into business, or professional school, or law and medicine. So I think the really important thing about [participating in research] is developing an empirical view of the world,” shares Professor of Psychology Curt Burgess, a CRF mentor. “You should come to conclusions based on actual data — that’s just a way of thinking about things and, in general, just a very important thing to learn.”
Veronique Rorive, director of the Undergraduate Office of Undergraduate Research, asserts that the true impact of programs such as CRF is that it marks these young researchers’ way of thinking. There are monthly meetings between recipients, workshops that help with presentation skills, and multidisciplinary discussion. The interaction between the 12 awardees also develops into a support system.
“You really develop skills like patience and humor because of the way research works — or doesn’t, no matter how well you plan it,” explains Rorive. She pauses and lets out a warm laugh. Rorive herself participated in undergraduate research as a student at UC Riverside. “When things fail or when things don’t go right, it gives you character development.”
Faculty Mentorship and Friendship
From the range and diapause of face flies (that’s musca autumnalis) to the linguistic patterns of some of the world’s greatest leaders, the topics chosen by undergraduate researchers truly are diverse. But the one common thread through all these students, all these projects, all these areas of focus? The utmost sense of respect and gratitude for UC Riverside’s supportive faculty and staff standing in as mentors.
“Any faculty member who says yes to a student to work with them, whether they’re funded through the CRF or through any other venue — or not funded at all, — is awesome just for the fact that they’re giving their time to mentor a student,” Rorive says, adding, “A lot of faculty are doing it without any recognition whatsoever.”
This was the case for Christopher Miller. A senior, he first paired up with his mentor, Huinan Liu, assistant professor of bioengineering, via email while taking one of her courses. “I wrote her a nine-paragraph letter saying that I wanted to do research, and would she mind taking me on,” he says. “She met with me over winter break just to see if I was serious, and I was part of her lab by spring.”
“I wrote her a nine-paragraph letter saying that I wanted to do research, and would she mind taking me on,” he says.
It was at Liu’s materials lab that Miller developed his CRF project: finding a way to make magnesium a viable biodegradable implant material to help heal bones.
Apart from learning the science of materials (which was interesting) and developing diligence (which is what research is all about), Miller says working in Liu’s lab also provided opportunities that wouldn’t have been available to him otherwise. “Dr. Liu nominated me for the Student Editorial Board last year, and supported my application for grants and the CRF,” Miller says. “Without her support, I definitely wouldn’t be where I am.”
In fact, Miller says that while Liu kept him on the right path with research and theoretical issues, one of his favorite aspects of working with Liu involved something bigger: happiness.
“Dr. Liu very much values finding happiness and joy in what you do. There are times when she noticed that I’d been stressed out or not working as well as I normally do and instead of berating me for that, she’d always first sit me down and kind of have a chat with me and make sure everything was okay,” Miller explains.
The same goes for the staff involved with the CRF, he says. “One thing that I do appreciate about this university — especially with Chancellor Wilcox’s recent efforts — is the expansion of undergraduate research. It’s one of the best ways for students to really find a foothold and to find something that makes them stand out as an undergraduate.”
Art is Research, Too
While the number of applicants the Chancellor’s Research Fellows attracts remains robust, the trend in its three years of existence has majority of students in the life sciences and just a handful from the humanities and arts.
“We’re out there hustling,” Brint says with a small chuckle. “As [CRF] becomes more institutionalized as important recognition on campus, we’ll have more and more people from all throughout the campus who will apply.”
In the CRF program, research is a catch-all term, an encompassing expression for undergraduate research, scholarly or creative activity.
Danni Wei, 21, is one example of how research isn’t just limited to lab work and numbers. Wei was born in Tianjin, China and immigrated to the United States when she was just eight. A soft-spoken but expressive junior majoring in art with a minor in statistics, she’s quick to answer when asked why she selected two such seemingly dissimilar fields of study:
“They’re two different ways to explore any questions you have. With statistics, you go out and gather data to get answers,” Wei explains. “In art, you can make it about anything you want to explore, and it’s on very broad terms.”
Wei’s CRF project explores art as a means of expression for persons with autism. It’s a subject that’s deeply personal to the deeply introverted Wei. “I had a difficult time bringing myself out to others; I was in my own world for a while,” Wei explains. “So I wanted to learn about alternative means of communication. What ways can we communicate with other human beings that is not verbal, or focused on verbal aspects?”
Danni Wei, 21, is one example of how research isn’t just limited to lab work and numbers.
Wei’s curiosity was piqued by gesturing and body language, but it wasn’t until she read an article about American autistic savant artist Jonathan Lerman that she fine-tuned her CRF topic.
“Lerman’s voice was in his art,” Wei says. “It was his way of reaching out to the world.” That profound discovery led her to speak to other autistic artists, and communicate with doctors, professionals, and authors working in the field of autism.
At the 2014 Annual UCR Undergraduate Research & Creative Activity Symposium, Wei set up two projectors pointing out and overlapping in the middle. People entered the space by walking into the projections to be a part of the experience. “I wanted to capture the shared experiences I have with the artists,” Wei says.
Wei says her CRF project was a means of self-examination. “If you start with an open mind and heart, anything is possible,” Wei says. “Your thoughts are not just empty—they can turn into something great.”
From Zero to Sixty
As one of the most diverse public research universities in the country, UCR has the unusual position of introducing students who have never so much as stepped into a lab before, and turning them into scientists at the end of four years. (Or, as Brint says, “Going from zero to sixty.”)
It has resulted in a different class of students — ones that Rorive says really blow you away. “These students are the ones who want to take an extra step outside of the classroom, who take it to the next step and challenge themselves in that way. They really are awesome,” gushes Rorive.
For 22-year-old psychology major Insia Hirawala, the opportunity for research was a challenge she gladly took on. “I was a community college student, so when I transferred to UC Riverside, I realized I wanted to apply to grad school. That made me want to take advantage of what UCR has to offer,” Hirawala shares.
For 22-year-old psychology major Insia Hirawala, the opportunity for research was a challenge she gladly took on.
Today she encourages students — no matter what they do — to apply to the program. “When I applied for the CRF, I thought it’d be a long shot. I put a lot of effort into it and when I received it, I realized hard work really does eventually pay off.”
Hirawala had previously worked as a research assistant under Professor Rebekah Richert in the UCR Child Cognition Lab and was hoping to expand on her faculty mentor’s work with children’s cognitive development.
In her research, Hirawala has spent many hours commuting back and forth from San Bernardino and her home in Fullerton to conduct 48 separate interviews with children, ages 3 to 5, and their families.
Her CRF topic, “Muslim Children’s Conceptualization of Allah and Prayer,” builds upon Richert’s continuing research that focuses largely on Christian and Jewish populations in order to have a proper comparison between the three predominant monotheistic religions.
“I’d ask the same questions about Allah and their mothers — if they were happy, if they were real — to see if children could understand that there is a difference between the two,” Hirawala explains.
The daughter of a hairdresser and a car salesman, Hirawala is a first-generation college student. “My parents may not know a lot about research, but my work ethic is something I learned from them, and I couldn’t have achieved my results or success without their love and support,” she says. Hirawala plans on attending grad school and going into marriage and family therapy and counseling in the future.
“Research is being able to put together something so complex,” Hirawala remarks. “As an undergrad I learned a lot—being independent, meeting deadlines … It’s also really rewarding to see results come out of what you initially collected data for. It’s truly fascinating to see all that come together.”
Brint says CRF is hoping to grow and continue the enrichment of students, as well as increase the number of applicants, and make sure all major disciplinary areas are represented going forward.
“It’s certainly not the case that every university is ignoring undergraduate research, but there are a lot of places where the focus is really on the graduate students and the notion that undergraduates are there to read, learn the literature and be well prepared when they go to grad school to participate in research,” Brint concludes. “We don’t believe that here. We believe that the students are very able and that you learn as much or more by being involved in doing the work than by just reading in the library.”
And look no further than the students who emerge from the Chancellor’s Research Fellows with new sets of skills, knowledge, and a re-evaluated, readjusted, and refreshed sense of their own self-regard.
“The fact that we produce so many students who go on to graduate and attend professional school and who have careers,” shares Brint. “I think it’s a testimony to the campus culture and faculty that promotes it.”