Undergraduate Research Society Provides Access To Research For All
Undergraduate research, especially in the life sciences and engineering, is a pillar of applied education — an opportunity to translate theoretical models from the class into real life applications in the lab. It’s also, according to junior Nate Arnett, very difficult to get involved with if you’re not in a special program, network, or have other privileged connections.
To ameliorate this issue, and to provide potentially hundreds of students access to research opportunities, Arnett and two other classmates have created the Undergraduate Research Society. In its current iteration that’s only several months old, its founders have already accrued hundreds of potential members, met with President Eric Barron, and created an accelerated program to help especially motivated and promising underclassmen access formal research in the hard sciences.
“Penn State is really populist,” Arnett explained. “Anyone can get an education here. It’s meant to serve people from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s set up to try to help people get where they want to go no matter how large or small their ambitions are. Research can be a part of that, but research isn’t set up in that populist way.”
Instead, he explained, access is largely based on several factors. If your parents are professors or you went to a good high school, existing networks and pipelines already exist to ease the transition and find research opportunities. Being in a special academic program helps too. Schreyer, Braddock, and Millennium Scholars are constantly bombarded with listserv emails that advertise research opportunities.
But that leaves an abundance of students on the outside looking in.
“There’s a large network of students who would like to do research but don’t know how to get involved,” he said.
Arnett, and his growing team of executive members, also realized that Penn State’s science education is set up in a way that fails to promote applied research. He used a sports analogy, that of a prized football recruit, to further this point.
“You watch them play in high school, you give them a scholarship, and then they start to play, they practice,” he said. “You don’t sit them down in a classroom and have them read about how the greatest football players play and then as a senior go out and play. But at Penn State in a lot of engineering fields, you have a lot of this abstract background and then you go into a lab and you have no technical preparation for it.”
That all gave rise to the Undergraduate Research Society, which Arnett and two friends founded initially in their freshman year, but which is now much more flushed out than previous efforts. He explained that it currently offers two layers of resources. The first is the general body meetings that convene every Tuesday evening. Every underclassman is paired with a more experienced undergraduate which serves as an advisor who helps determine the underclassman’s interests and explores available opportunities.
“At these meetings we have professional development forums, tell people how to write a resume, how to contact a professor, how to talk about research intelligently and figure out what kind of research you enjoy,” he explained. “We have talks from grad students and professors, and hopefully people in industry as well so hopefully people can understand the applications of research.”
Those meetings are available to all students on the society’s listserv, which after a series of involvement fairs totals in the hundreds. For a select group of 25 students, Arnett and his board created the U-RISE Program. It’s essentially a more intense, personal approach to prepare students for undergraduate research. And by the end of the semester, the participants present their research to other U-RISE students to demonstrate the noticeable progress.
“For the first half of the semester we teach these kids all the technical elements of lab work, all the techniques used in life science labs,” he said. “Then they’ll have two lab rotations of three weeks each where they’ll get paired with a professor, they’ll work on a small independent project in their lab. The goal of these two rotations is to help them get exposed to actual research, get a few connections within the faculty at Penn State.”
This all, 0f course, requires not only a great deal of cooperation from professors, but from the university as a whole. Arnett and his team met with President Barron in the beginning of the semester to introduce their program and enlist his support. One of the initiatives Barron laid out during his first year in office is the encouragement of engaged scholarship, and Arnett felt the Undergraduate Research Society firmly fit that paradigm. Nothing concrete came from the meeting, but Barron expressed support and enthusiasm toward the initiative.
It should also be noted that neither Arnett, nor either of his other two co-founders, fall into the group of students the society works to help. Arnett is a Schreyer scholar and son of a professor, and had opportunities for undergraduate research before even stepping on campus. His other two partners share similar experiences. Instead, he said, the joy comes from helping others.
“That’s the big goal,” he said. “It’s really rewarding to see a younger student develop, everybody involved really enjoys that.”
Photo: Nate Arnett