sealPurdue News

May 2, 1997

Professors turn undergrads into researchers

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Doors of high-powered research laboratories are swinging open at Purdue University, letting in ... undergraduates. In fact, many professors in the School of Agriculture are making a habit of adding undergraduates to their research teams.

Over the past 10 years, more than 90 undergraduate students have co-authored research papers with 69 different professors. Topics have ranged from studies of hormone levels in pregnant swine to creation of transgenic sorghum. In 1996 alone, seven undergraduate students in the School of Agriculture co-authored papers in scientific journals.

David Haley, a senior working with Paul Brown, associate professor of aquaculture, has three papers accepted for publication in 1997. He's been studying the diet and nutrition of hybrid striped bass, bluegill and spiny lobsters.

"I came to Purdue just looking for a four-year degree," Haley says. "Then I met Professor Brown in a freshman seminar and got involved in the fisheries program. It really changed my perspective. I volunteered for a semester in the aquaculture laboratory, got hired on, helped graduate students, then did three publishable projects on my own."

Undergraduates have a chance to complete research projects and publish because they can jump into research that's in progress, says food science Professor Suzanne Nielsen. Professors already have written the proposals for funding, bought the glassware and set up the equipment. Students join projects in time to help set up and conduct experiments. And they get a feel for the part of the process that makes the job worthwhile to most researchers -- the sense of discovery.

"It was just fun. And because it was fun, I put a lot into it," says Lisa Jurgonski Mauer, who worked in Nielsen's lab as an undergraduate. Mauer now is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota.

While she worked with Nielsen, Mauer wrote an honors thesis describing the effects of environmental conditions on the nutrient content of soybeans. It turned into her first published paper and helped her get support to continue in graduate school.

"Graduate school was always a goal of mine," Mauer says. "The University of Minnesota offered me a fellowship to go directly to a Ph.D. They took a good look at my thesis before they made that decision. And the experience with Dr. Nielsen made the transition to graduate school much easier."

Experience also helps students get jobs. Brown, who currently has four undergraduate students in his lab, would like to see every student do undergraduate research.

"The experience is a significant addition to an undergraduate's resume when they go to apply for graduate school or a job," he says.

The benefits don't go only one way -- faculty benefit because undergraduates provide the manpower they need to get research work done. According to Sue Loesch-Fries, assistant professor of botany, undergraduates also can be a mental breath of fresh air.

"Undergrads don't have the preconceived ideas that have been trained into those of us who've been working in the field," says Loesch-Fries. "They make us take another look at what we thought was true."

Karl Brandt, director of the Office of Academic Programs for the School of Agriculture, encourages Loesch-Fries and others to include undergraduates in their research. He started offering grants to help defray the cost of student work in laboratories and has been pleased that so many professors apply for them. Brandt is the first Purdue administrator to track and report undergraduate student co-authorship on journal papers.

"What satisfies me about this is that it involves faculty from all of our departments," Brandt said. "And they generally are faculty that teach graduate, not undergraduate, courses."

Sources: Karl Brandt, (765) 494-8472; e-mail,
Paul Brown, (765) 494-4968; e-mail,
David Haley, (765) 743-7261
Lisa Jurgonski Mauer, (612) 624-7776; e-mail,
Sue Loesch-Fries, (765) 494-4624; e-mail,
Suzanne Nielsen, (765) 494-8328; e-mail,
Writer: Rebecca Goetz, (765) 494-0461; e-mail
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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