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Thinking like a scientist: The case for hands-on experience

By Marisa Larson

“The impact of doing research early in my undergraduate career has shaped my life in a way I never knew it would when I walked into Dr. Conrad’s classroom as a freshman,” said recent K-State graduate Scott McCall. He and many other biology students have benefited from the mentorship of Gary Conrad, university distinguished professor and Lillian J. Brychta Endowed Professor of Biology.

According to Conrad, students participating in hands-on research gain skills that not only benefit them in the lab, but also in all their classes and in life in general. “They learn independent, critical thinking, the ability to write well by writing reports, and public speaking when presenting their research,” he said.

Enhancing the student experience for undergraduates is a key component of K-State’s mission to be a top 50 public research university by 2025, and research is a big part of that experience. Conrad is well known (and well loved) across campus for giving undergraduates amazing research opportunities. He hires freshmen to wash dishes in his lab. From that position, they learn how research is done. If they have the drive to learn and do more, Conrad encourages them to take on research projects and author papers. And in the summers, he takes a few students to a marine biology lab in Maine to conduct research on sharks’ eyes. Resources from the Brychta endowment, as well as other funding sources, help make these opportunities possible for undergraduates.

These types of experiences give K-State students a leg up when applying for jobs and graduate schools. “When interviewing for graduate programs, my undergraduate research is all I talked about,” said Gage Brummer, one of Conrad’s recent students. “Every single school I interviewed with noted the amount of research I had done, and the fact that I had published a first-author and second-author paper. This absolutely would not have been possible without the abundant research opportunities available at K-State, which are unusual in their breadth and scope.”

“Dr. Conrad provoked critical thought, forced me to look deeper into the issue and allowed me to devise a solution for myself,” said Stacey Littlechild, another recent Conrad mentee. “Only later would I realize his methods taught me how to approach research and think like a scientist. He was always sneakily instilling confidence in me that way.”

To maintain and increase opportunities for undergraduates to be involved in research, funding is imperative. An endowment to support faculty research that includes undergraduates is ideal. “With federal budgets so tight, investigators have less and less incentive to put untrained hands in their underfunded labs,” said Brummer. “What outside funding does is circumvent any financial barriers to an undergraduate getting research experience. Getting money to promote undergraduate research is one of the best philanthropic investments you can make in society, because it gets the next generation of people who will cure disease and advance scientific knowledge a huge head start.”

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