There once was a prof in Corvallis
Whose abilities made everyone jealous,
For his lyrics were fine,
His delivery sublime,
And his support for his students tremendous.
–Limerick by Victoria Bonebrake
DURING HALF OF HIS WORKWEEK, biochemistry/biophysics professor Kevin Ahern is renowned among students at Oregon State for his wit and animated lecture style. During the other half, he plants experiences in the professional lives of undergrads across all disciplines and majors. Making connections and advocating for students who seek real-world research practice is Ahern’s focus as the university’s director of undergraduate research. He connects professors and students for collaboration, increases opportunities for undergraduate research, educates students on the value of undergraduate research, and increases the funds and resources available for such opportunities on campus. In the following Q&A, he provides tips to faculty for connecting, collaborating with, and supporting undergraduates in what can be substantive scientific endeavors.
VICTORIA BONEBRAKE: What are your priorities as director of undergraduate research?
KEVIN AHERN: My role has four key components: connecting interested students with professors, increasing undergraduate research opportunities, educating students about the value of undergraduate research and increasing the funds available for undergraduate research. I’ve worked with every undergraduate college and dozens of departments and units.
BONEBRAKE: What are the unique needs of undergraduate students, as compared to graduates, in terms of playing a meaningful role in research?
AHERN: One of the obvious unique needs of undergrads is their lack of training in the methods of research. Another is learning how to ask questions that are answerable. And confidence issues underlie everything. Because experience is the best teacher, I try to get students working with professors as early as possible. Freshman year is not at all uncommon in the College of Science. In addition, I teach a class in the University Honors College called “Thesis: Learn” that helps students working on their theses to get acquainted with the methods and mindset of scholarly and scientific research. Whenever I can, I meet with students and help them get over the “hump” of interacting with professors. I’ve made an instructional video (over 4,000 views!) about how to get involved in undergraduate research at OSU. I think it helps students to feel empowered when they interact with professors.
BONEBRAKE: What kinds of research projects best align with the unique needs of undergraduate researchers?
AHERN: Hmm. That’s a good question that I’ve never thought of before. Obviously, the more “techie” projects will be harder for many (but not all) undergrads to get their heads around. I think the best projects are those that have the best mentors. Excellent mentors bring out the absolute best in students, even if the student didn’t start with strong skills. A good mentor is a good teacher and/or has good teachers working with them.
BONEBRAKE: At what point in the process should you bring students into a long-term project or study?
AHERN: That’s another tough question. Long-term projects are difficult for undergrads in some disciplines because of the time needed to devote to them. Several areas of engineering, for example, tell students not to get involved before junior year. For those students, long-term projects aren’t really feasible. In the biological sciences, by contrast, it is not at all uncommon for first-term freshmen to get involved in research. By the time they’re sophomores, they’re pros and ready for bigger, more involved things. It is also important to remember that young students have interests that change during their stay at OSU. Not everyone is going to be appropriate for a long-term project. In the end, I think it simply depends on the specifics of each project, student, and mentor. I don’t see a general rule.
BONEBRAKE: What are the rewards for researchers who choose to bring in undergraduate students?
AHERN: Ah, these are very tangible and very intangible at the same time. Tangible benefits include having another skilled set of hands and brains for relatively little expense. The energy of undergrads for their projects is often extraordinarily high, and this is an intangible benefit that invigorates everyone involved in a project. Working with undergrad researchers is also a very important form of teaching, and that’s why we’re here. Many people are coming to realize that working with undergrad researchers helps us to fulfill our various teaching missions.
BONEBRAKE: Aside from their own classrooms, how do you recommend professors connect with or recruit undergrads to engage in the research process?
AHERN: I have an open offer to every professor and to every student to help them to connect. From a professor, all I need is a description of what he or she is looking for in an undergrad. With that info, I then go looking for undergrads who meet those criteria. I run an undergrad listserv called ugresearch that has over 500 subscribers. Every time I put a notice on it, the professor(s) advertising there get overwhelmed with the responses. On the flipside, when undergrads come to me, I point them to my instructional video on getting involved in undergrad research (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PmfJ7qxEsVo&ab_channel=KevinAhern) and another one of filling out grant applications (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ke4Z2onRK0c&ab_channel=KevinAhern)
BONEBRAKE: What would you say are the most significant challenges for professors working with URAs?
AHERN: Two things. The first time a professor engages an undergrad researcher, they are often hesitant and require encouragement. In other words, they are just like the students! There is an energy hump for both. After that challenge is overcome, the biggie is the time commitment to get the student up to speed. Undergrads are not as deeply trained (and thus not as independent at first) as grad students and thus require a fair amount of assistance to get started. Further, undergrads have more variable schedules than grad students, so that’s a bit of the adjustment.
BONEBRAKE: How do you overcome gaps in undergrads’ academic knowledge?
AHERN: There isn’t a simple answer to this question. For many students, they learn “on the job,” and this gives them an enormous leg up when they encounter the same principles in the classroom. The amount of learning required varies enormously across the campus. Engineering tends to want students to have more practical learning in place before they get started in research. Again, a good mentor is a good teacher and/or has good teachers working with them. These people are all incredible educators, but are often not recognized as such.
BONEBRAKE: Conversely, what are the most common challenges students encounter when working with researchers?
AHERN: This is a bit more complicated. First, students need to know accurately how much time they can devote to a project before they talk to a professor. Further, as midterms come and go, the actual time a student has goes down and up. Students should not be afraid to ask questions about things they don’t understand. It is very easy for an undergrad to feel like everyone knows everything except them; they don’t want to appear dumb, so they’re more likely to be silent when they should be asking questions. Also, undergrads need to learn how to communicate in advance regarding their available time and how that changes during a term. A bad impression some undergrads leave with mentors is unreliability — promising to work a certain number of hours and then having to back off or, worse, just not showing up when expected. Finally, undergrads need to be doing research for the right reasons. Some students see undergrad research as another “notch” in the belt as part of their OSU education. I tell students that if they’re seeking research for some reason besides their fascination with the work and the desire to learn more, then they probably shouldn’t go into research. Fortunately, the number of students in this category is not very large.
BONEBRAKE: How can mentors best support their undergraduate researchers?
AHERN: First, encourage them. Second, recognize the limitations of their students and work to reduce them. Third, help them to find pay. There’s a growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots in undergrad research. A student who doesn’t need to be paid to work in a lab — someone who can do it for free or for credit — is very popular with professors. Unfortunately, students on the lower end of the economic spectrum can’t afford to do this. So they get locked out of many lab opportunities. Professors are, sadly, often unaware of this disparity and don’t realize how big of a barrier it actually is.
BONEBRAKE: Can you recommend any resources or materials for mentors who are interested in bringing undergraduate assistants into their projects?
AHERN: I’ve put together a booklet of instructions for mentors to work with students in a new NSF grant I received. That booklet was aimed at the specific needs of students in my program (OSU STEM Leaders Program), but I think it could be adapted for more general use by others.
For more information about connecting with undergraduate researchers, visit the Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and the Arts program at http://oregonstate.edu/students/research/. To advertise an undergraduate research position on Professor Ahern’s listserv, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.