We can resolve the undergraduate research catch-22

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Photo Credit: Nikole Pena | Daily Texan Staff

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly said that Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science programs only reach about 10% of CNS undergraduates. The programs actually reach closer to 40% of CNS undergraduates. The Texan regrets this error.

It’s no secret that UT and its students love research. This campus hosts more than 6,000 individual research projects worth more than $500 million. Professors and students alike lead a plethora of labs exploring everything from education policy to financial mathematics, earning UT its classification as a Carnegie R1 research university. 

This culture of experiential learning is a great asset to students. But sometimes it’s difficult to get your foot in the door, as labs often turn away students who don’t have prior research experience. For undergraduates who didn’t have the opportunity to participate in research before entering college, this practice deters them in their quest to find a position in the labs they’re interested in. 

When health and society sophomore Kate Gist was told that the labs she wanted to work in were looking for more experienced students, she felt frustrated and disappointed. 

“(The whole process) is just really selective,” Gist said. “And then, you start feeling anxious … because as we go through college, people are looking for students with more and more experience but you look back, and you’re just not at that level.”

This Catch-22 of missing out on research experience because of a lack of that very research experience causes students stress, making them feel like they are perpetually lagging behind their peers. 

The Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science does offer programs to support students in their search for experiential learning opportunities on campus. The best-known of these programs is the Freshman Research Initiative, which has 30 active research streams that undergraduates can start working in during their freshman year. This popular program has received national acclaim and now serves almost 1,000 natural science freshmen. 

However, these programs only reach approximately 40% of all CNS undergraduates. The other programs that the institute offers, such as Science Sprints and Inventors Sprints, don’t provide a long-term research placement or enough experience for students to qualify for further lab positions. 

Thus, it must fall on faculty members to resolve this undergraduate research Catch-22 by opening up their labs to undergraduates ­— even those without prior experience. 

“Faculty members with streams get tons of benefits,” said Kara Rogers, the director of the Freshman Research Initiative. “They become quite a bit more research-productive because students produce novel data. And because they’re freshmen, that can allow for a long-term relationship with these faculty members and that research.” 

The initiative helps tailor faculty members’ research to freshmen skill levels and provides the resources to set up an introductory lab experience. As the program grows, it might fall on faculty to take the initiative themselves and emulate a similar model in their labs. Admittedly, this is not an easy task.

“Science is a competitive field, and unfortunately there’s not enough funding to go around to everyone, so (the CNS faculty’s) focus is on sustaining their research … and it is difficult for inexperienced undergraduates to get trained,”  Greg Clark, research educator for the Discovering Signals stream, said. However, Clark maintains that the long-term benefits to faculty and to the University as a whole outweigh the upfront costs of employing inexperienced undergraduates. 

“Part of the responsibility of being a scientist and a faculty member at UT-Austin is training the next generation of scientists and communicating scientific research to young students,” Clark said.

The novel research done at UT has the immense potential to impact almost every facet of the globe. It is understandable that faculty members may feel daunted by the prospect of inviting young, inexperienced students into their labs, but only the best and brightest come to this campus, and they want to learn and discover. Let’s make sure they can.

Dasgupta is a neuroscience sophomore from Frisco.