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Finding Meaning in the Undergraduate Research Experience

Meet them where they’re at, and show them they’re making an impact, say speakers.

One of Botany 2020’s education-focussed offerings was a symposium entitled “The Science of Meaningful Undergraduate Research Experiences.” Many researchers rely on undergraduates (UGs) for a significant amount of the labour that goes on in their lab, though these contributions aren’t always as visible as those of more senior lab members. This collection of talks was meant to highlight methods used by lab leaders to engage UGs and help them to have meaningful and rewarding research experiences.

Photo by Retha Ferguson from Pexels

The symposium began with a talk by Wendy Clement focussing on using a student’s natural interests and talents as a gateway to their research experience. She told the story of a student who approached her with a love of drawing plants and who, with Clement’s guidance, took on a leaf-shape morphometrics project in which she illustrated her own work. Combining art with science led the student in new directions in her thinking. Clement urged mentors to meet students where they’re at, and consider their strengths.

A number of speakers focussed on the strategies they use to build trust and a rewarding working relationship with their UG students. Jennifer Ison, Janelle Burke, Anri Chomentowska, Jason Cantley, and Katherine Goodrich all shared their experiences. Several speakers touched on the importance of understanding how students see their own progress, and what their expectations of themselves are. Ison has students give themselves a self-progress score, and often needs to address students being too hard on themselves by expecting too much.

Most of the presenters emphasized the importance of building relationships between UGs, either as a cohort with collaborative projects and group meetings, or through one-on-one through peer mentoring. Cantley stressed that UG research experiences can take different forms, and need not all end in publishable data. Many students, he said, are cooped up in on-campus housing and happy just to get to work in the greenhouse and be hands-on with the plants.

Rachel Jabaily spoke about cross-institution, cross-discipline research projects with UGs at small liberal arts colleges, detailing how mathematical modelling students at one school and biology students at another worked together on a collaborative project. Liberal arts colleges, she explained, are the ideal arena for this type of collaboration due to their shared values of interdisciplinary work and focus on undergraduates. While many UGs have the privilege of being full-time students with few commitments outside of school, conflicting schedules can be a major hurdle to effectively working with groups of UGs on a collaborative project.

Amelia Merced spoke about her use of the tablet-based app, Survey123. The app is used with ArcGIS to collect field observations with linked GPS data and photos, enabling users to create, share, and analyze surveys. Merced’s students use the app to design and carry out field experiments at a research site in Puerto Rico. They collect data, analyze it, and write their own reports. Merced found that using the app with her students turned them into active learners, and encouraged conversations on how to improve data collection and analysis.

Last but not least was Chris Martine’s talk on making UG research experiences meaningful. For me, this was the standout talk of the symposium. Martine feels that a meaningful experience for students means seeing that their work can have an impact outside of the lab, and a great way to do that is to get them involved in species discovery. He described what he calls the ‘Meaningfulness Hustle’, which for him equates to species discovery plus science communication in the form of spinning a narrative out of the discovery.

In one case, Martine’s group named a new species after Mark Watney, the fictional scientist from the book and movie The Martian. They even took the plant to ‘see’ the movie, garnering a lot of positive media attention. For another discovery, he had 150 seventh graders write essays in a competition to name the new plant, again attracting media attention.

Not every lab leader can replicate Martine’s success in attracting attention for their students’ work, of course, but he made an important point about taking the extra step to show students how impactful their efforts in the lab can be, and the knock-on effect that recognition can have when it comes to their motivation to continue in research. As Martine said, “You have to find creative ways for them to see they’re making an impact.”

Undergraduates are the stuff future scientists are made of. Their mentors owe it to them to value their labour and stoke their enthusiasm for botany, creating enriching educational experiences in exchange for their time and energy.

Erin Zimmerman

Erin Zimmerman is a botanist turned science writer and sometimes botanical illustrator. She did her PhD at the University of Montréal and worked as a post-doctoral fellow with the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture. She was a plant morphologist, but when no one wanted to pay her to do that anymore, she started writing about them instead. Her other plant articles (and occasional essays) appear in Smithsonian Magazine, Undark, New York Magazine, Narratively, and elsewhere. Read her stuff at www.DrErinZimmerman.com.
Erin can also be found talking about plants and being snarky on Twitter @DoctorZedd.

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