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Young Minds Performing Research

A visit with Linda Blockus, Director of Undergraduate Research

By Sean Powers
Published: - Topics: undergraduate research graduate school scholar academic politics

Can nest conditions predict what kinds of predators can masticate a bird? What effects do controlled drugs have on the formation of persistent follicles in beef cows? How resourceful is the neglected art of video poetry? These were just some of the questions that approximately 120 undergraduate students were attempting to answer during the summer of 2007.

The Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum, held at the end of July at the Bond Life Sciences Center, allowed students to present their scholarly research projects to the public. MU students specializing in an array of concentrations were stationed at posters describing their findings.

But these posters were just the tip of the iceberg. The students actually spent all summer researching, some learning that data collection can be a 24-hour job. In lieu of classes, their entire summer was focused on their research projects. For some, this meant waking up at three o’clock in the morning to head to the data field site or running experiments in the laboratory until late at night.

Linda Blockus, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, says many students do not try out the laborious role of researcher until they reach graduate school. Offering undergraduates this opportunity, therefore, opens up new frontiers of knowledge and experience.

“Often I tell students the first day on the project: ‘You’re not going to discover the cure for cancer, but you’re going to learn what approaches are being used, get your interests going, get your juices going, and then as time goes on, and you learn more, you’ll get to the point where you have your own research project,” explains Blockus.

Just because their work may not lead to a landmark discovery doesn’t mean student research is unwarranted. Each year, about twenty students present their findings to state legislators in order to outline the potential impact of their research on the state. “This is our way of reminding state officials of some of the things we do and the special ways we’re adding value to student experiences here at MU,” says Blockus.

As a major university, MU has cooperative relations with colleges and universities across the country and the globe. The Undergraduate Research program likewise has close ties with institutions around the world, bringing international faculty to the MU campus and sending our students to other campuses. This summer, undergraduate researchers conducted projects at the University of California-San Francisco, University of California-Berkeley, New York University, University of Illinois-Chicago, and Iowa State. As Blockus notes, “students are likely to work with a scientist from Pakistan, South Korea, Australia, England, or Israel…. It really helps broaden their understanding of how science is a global experience.” In addition, she adds, “having done some research at MU, they have developed some basic skills… experienced a different kind of environment; when they come back to MU, they bring a different kind of enthusiasm to their research teams, which is really neat to see.”

Blockus knows that some people view research as a monotonous and lonely experience, but she argues that this opinion is “very far from the truth.” Students are actually a part of much larger teams of researchers, including graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, international scholars, visiting faculty, faculty members, and lab technicians. Moreover, many students work their way up the ladder by working in a research setting as freshmen, later serving as mentors to younger students.

Many aspiring students enter college with a specific career in mind, according to Blockus, but do not understand the reality of conducting research in those fields: “Their goal may be to be journalists, but there are a lot of people doing research on journalism, and that might be an alternate career for them.” At the very least, she says, the experience helps students “understand what kind of research or scholarly activities are going on in those professional fields, so they have a deeper and more mature understanding.” In order to go on to graduate school—an exciting path for many students—some preliminaries are necessary: “you really need to have an understanding of research and scholarly activity in the field before you commit to that path. Students who do research in the summer get a real taste of that so they can confirm that’s what they want to do.” In the process some students will decide that a career in research is not for them: “Of course there are some students, having had a taste of research, who decide, ‘You know, it’s not quite what I want to do. I’m interested in the topic, but I do not have interest enough or passion enough to really devote myself to it.’” Blockus considers that outcome a success as well.