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Chance to do research brings rural-, tribal-college undergrads to UND

Research Experiences for Undergraduates hosted at UND are federally funded, high-impact research gateways

This snapshot from a 2017 UNDergraduate Showcase shows how conducting research helps students turn curiosity into knowledge, discovery and career-building skills. UND archival image.

Van Doze, associate professor of biomedical sciences, knows he wouldn’t be where he is today without the mentors he met along the way.

For example, when a renowned biochemist spoke at the state school Doze attended, Doze started to see all of science differently. That chance encounter during his undergraduate studies put Doze on a path that eventually took him to graduate school at Stanford.

Van Doze

“As an undergrad, there wasn’t much in the way of research experiences at my school,” Doze said. “I would have never thought I had a chance in a lab if those who mentored me hadn’t seen my progress and recognized my interest.”

By the time he got to UND, to teach and conduct research, Doze knew he wanted to similarly shift perspectives by bringing undergraduates into the lab environment.

Not only that, but Doze wanted to set up a formal program to make sure students from across the region, especially those enrolled at smaller institutions or tribal colleges, could experience life in a lab.

His funding proposal to the National Science Foundation found success, and Doze has been able to administer a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program for the past 16 summers.

Every summer, from June until August, two dozen students come to campus to work in laboratories alongside faculty, graduate students and fellow undergraduate students. Each student gets a $6,000 stipend, funding for room and board (as well as travel) and additional University support if needed, such as for child care services on campus.

Doze’s REU program, “Genes & The Environment: Research Experiences for Undergraduates from Rural and Tribal Colleges,” is one of a number of programs UND administers to engage undergraduates in activities traditionally reserved for graduates and post-doctoral students.

John Mihelich, UND’s vice president for research and economic development, said UND faculty engaging undergraduates is part of the core of the University’s research endeavors, and programs such as Doze’s REU reach out to students from other institutions across the state, join them with students from UND and around the country, and enable them to participate in cutting-edge research.

“My respect and appreciation go out to all the faculty who provide opportunities for undergraduate students to learn and gain experience through research, and to the students who take the leap to become involved,” Mihelich said. “The students welcome the challenge and the impact cuts many ways – on the students’ learning, on their professional and collaborative skills and on our faculty teaching and research experience.”

Image courtesy of Karen Cisek.

Summers to remember

Biology professor Rebecca Simmons has worked with Doze on the summer REU since 2014, but her first experience with such a program came years before – specifically, when she herself was a senior at a 1,000-student school in her native Virginia.

Back then, Simmons made a five-hour journey to Maryland to help a biologist and some graduate students study a gull colony. She learned how to drive a boat and how to handle feisty seabirds, among other things. But, more importantly, Simmons learned what it took to be a scientist in the field.

Rebecca Simmons

Without the mentorship and experience she gained that summer, her dream to become a professor wouldn’t have been possible, she said.

“I loved it, it was great fun,” said Simmons of her time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. “I quickly realized that I didn’t like birds. But if I had tried to go to graduate school without any sort of research experience, I wouldn’t have been looked at twice.”

At UND, Simmons is an entomologist, studying the world of insects. Now she brings students into her own lab each summer through the REU program.

Her interest in moths, for instance, has led students to learn DNA and RNA extraction, sequencing and analysis in answering questions about genetic evolution as well as traits such as mimicry. Depending on the scale of a given project, students will often work alongside Simmons over the summer in addition to the graduate and undergraduate students already working in the lab.

Depending on their interests, REU students can find themselves in a variety of labs in the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Medicine & Health Sciences at UND. Simmons’ program is on the smaller end of the spectrum, which results in more side-by-side work with REU students.

“We do a lot of pipetting of small liquids, and there are little tricks that you can learn to be more accurate,” said Simmons of the experience. “Basically, I’m teaching students my lab recipes. As we go along, they become more independent and have more ownership of the work they’re doing.”

Most summers end with a poster presentation session for all participating in the REU. For the final two weeks, students synthesize what they’ve learned along the way and create a poster similar to what’s displayed at the annual Undergraduate Showcase at UND.

“When they start doing that project, they start to see what they’ve done and how far they’ve come,” Simmons smiled. “It’s always impressive.”

Image courtesy of Karen Cisek.

Benefits abound despite pandemic

Pointing to numerous studies that examined the benefits students receive by engaging in research, Doze said that REU fellows primarily get to see if scientific inquiry is something they would like to pursue.

“These types of programs help them see what is out there in terms of careers, and what they can do using the research process,” Doze said. “During the 10 weeks, we have speakers from a variety of professional backgrounds talk to students, from academia to private industry. … There are a lot of careers out there for people who understand research.”

Also, the sooner undergrads get involved in high-caliber research, the more likely they are to stay in college and finish their degrees, said Doze. For that reason, about half of the students selected for the “Genes & The Environment” REU are freshmen or sophomores.

Simmons echoed Doze and added that, while 10 weeks is short with respect to the span of most research projects, students typically leave REU stints with a great sense of achievement. They learn leadership skills through their varied tasks and responsibilities, as well as valuable lessons in communication as they work with professors and fellow students alike.

“When we’re doing things in person, like most years, the REU students are a cohort – they have to spend a lot of their free time together,” Simmons said. “So they really get to work with and talk to other students doing other types of research.”

Thanks to COVID, nearly all of the REU cohort worked remotely this past summer. Still, students found ways to connect online, such as watching movies or playing games during their free time. Simmons would host Zoom sessions for casual chats to replace the morning coffee and conversation that normally would occur at the lab.

“COVID really shifted things around, but we were able to keep this going through pandemic, whereas other places shut their programs down,” said Doze. “Our faculty mentors did an awesome job in stepping up and pivoting a program that’s typically all on-campus.”

‘All a plus for UND and the state’

This summer, Doze also celebrated the milestone of bringing a cumulative 200 students through the UND-hosted, NSF-funded research experience. And the summer marked the first offering of Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships through the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (ASPET).

Three students made up ASPET’s first cohort at UND’s School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Doze expressed his pride in being able to mirror the stipends and accommodations that are possible through his long-running NSF REU.

“ASPET loved the proposal, and we have the first program of its kind in a five-state region out of the 20 or so nationwide,” Doze said. “Very few of those, if any, are targeting rural and tribal colleges the way UND is.”

For Doze, that “targeting” aspect has been key to UND’s success in bringing in students not just from smaller North Dakota institutions, but from schools across the country. The associate professor annually travels the region and beyond to speak to educators and classrooms about the research experiences available each year.

Though attaining a spot can be competitive, students newer to the idea of scientific work are encouraged to apply, and are more likely to be selected.

“It’s all a plus for UND and the state,” Doze said. “Students can come to Grand Forks for the summer and feel comfortable, especially those from rural backgrounds. If they like it, it not only means they’re more likely to stick with STEM, but they also might transfer to UND.”

Simmons credited Doze for making the effort to personally connect with North Dakota’s tribal colleges, which in turn brings American Indian students to UND each summer for high-impact learning opportunities found in few other places throughout the state.

“He works so hard to make the REU as inclusive as possible, and it’s good for students to get out of their comfort zone,” Simmons said. “It is really rewarding to work with the students in our program, personally connect and help them figure out what they want to do. So many people did that for me, and these research projects can do that.

“Even if you figure out that you really hate bugs, or birds, you’re still asking questions about the world around you. And that helps.”