Finding Your Inner Einstein

“We believe that undergraduate research is the pedagogy for the 21st century.”   –National Council on Undergraduate Research

Kevin Ahern directs undergraduate research at Oregon State University. (Photo: Hannah O'Leary)
Kevin Ahern directs undergraduate research at Oregon State University. (Photo: Hannah O’Leary)

By Lee Anna Sherman

Kevin Ahern’s body language telegraphs his professional zeal. His arms akimbo, his eyes as round as moons, his swivel chair twisting this way and that, the director for Oregon State’s undergraduate research extolls the virtues of active scholarship.

“I’ve seen phenomenal growth and output from undergraduate researchers,” expounds Ahern, who teaches biochemistry and biophysics when he’s not hooking students up with research opportunities.

Even his neckwear speaks of his commitment to jump-starting students’ college careers by bringing them into the research fold early and often. The face of Albert Einstein adorns his orange-and-black tie, a gift from a grateful student. “She told me it reminded her of me,” he says, flipping it up to look at the fabled scientist with the wild hair. “I’m not sure if she meant my brains or my hair.”

Tapping into each student’s inner Einstein — that quester of cosmic secrets, that seeker of deeper insights, that finder of new truths — is what happens when undergrads do original research or scholarship under the wing of a professor or a post-doctoral researcher. It makes no difference whether they’re studying physics or philosophy, forestry or fine arts. The act of creative delving, hand-in-hand with a caring mentor, is transformative.

“They go from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge,” Ahern says. “They’re often surprised that they, too, can participate in creating knowledge. It’s extremely empowering.”

Crockpots to Petri Plates

Ahern tells the story of one former student, Katie Lebold, a biochemistry major who was on his advisee rolls. “She struck me as extraordinarily bright,” he recalls. “But her grades weren’t that great.” When he sat down to talk with her, he learned that she was working almost full-time at Bed Bath & Beyond in a neighboring town to pay for college. The grueling hours selling bathmats and crockpots, along with the grinding commute, were siphoning off her energy for school. Ahern went into action. He found her a paid position running experiments on vitamin E in the lab of OSU researcher Maret Traber.

“The transformation was remarkable,” Ahern says. “She went from struggling to being top of her class. As an undergraduate, she co-authored three or four publications — that’s almost unheard of for an undergrad. She published six more papers as a master’s student. Now she’s in the M.D./Ph.D. program at Oregon Health & Science University.”

Students like Lebold are the beneficiaries of a heavy push toward inquiry-based learning that took hold in American universities a couple decades ago. Textbooks and lectures have their place. But passively soaking up facts fails to foster critical thinking, problem solving and creative visioning, advocates argue. Without systematic investigation and active scholarship, there can be no discovery, no innovation, no advancement, no matter what your field of study. In cetacean genetics, American history, ice-core chemistry, prehistoric art, ancient-forest ecology, breakthroughs happen only when scientists and scholars observe, explore, hypothesize, challenge assumptions, sample, experiment, analyze — in short, follow the evidence. Freshman year is not too soon to jump into this rigorous way of knowing, according to Ahern and other proponents of undergraduate research.

Just before the turn of the millennium, the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University made a call to action. “The freshman and sophomore years need to open intellectual avenues that will stimulate original thought and independent effort, and reveal the relationships among sciences, social sciences and humanities,” wrote the commission, funded by the Carnegie Foundation.

At Oregon State, undergrads do research on amphibian declines, post-Cold War America, Weddell seal health, World War II censorship, threats to tropical reefs, radiation protection software and a host of other projects across multiple disciplines. About 2,500 undergraduate researchers participate yearly at OSU, some funded through the university’s Research Office program called Undergraduate Research, Innovation, Scholarship, and Creativity (URISC) and others paid by professors, departments, scholarships and the OSU Foundation. Some students do research for credit. Others do it simply for the experience.

The numbers of students participating and the level of university funding for undergraduate research at OSU fall somewhere in the middle of the pack for land grant and public research universities, according to Ahern. A recent survey of peer institutions across the country found between 1,000 (Stony Brook) and 10,000 undergrads (Michigan State) doing research. University funding to pay undergraduate researchers started at $55,000 (UC Davis) and topped out at $450,000 (Florida State), with Oregon State coming in at $150,000.

Ahern is hoping for an infusion of dollars from two large undergrad research initiatives that are pending: $2 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and $2 million from the National Science Foundation.

Keep on Truckin’

Since the Boyer Commission released its seminal report, studies have revealed that undergraduate research is a boon to students. Retention is one of the big benefits. African-American and other underserved students, in particular, are more likely to stay in college when they engage in research. Largely, that’s because the cooperative nature of science enfolds students who might otherwise feel disconnected, research shows. It seems that team spirit imbues scientific and scholarly endeavors just as it does soccer matches and basketball games.

Undergraduate research heightens confidence, teaches patience, strengthens the work ethic, boosts achievement, raises aspirations, bolsters self-concept and fosters persistence. And it inoculates young scholars against the disappointments inherent in trial and error. “As a scientist, you have to learn that sometimes things just don’t work,” one student researcher at Xavier University remarked. “You have to pick up your boots and keep on truckin’.”

In a nutshell, undergraduate research ignites what Grinnell College psychologist David Lopatto calls “a bright period of maturation.”