Summer research gets students out of the classroom

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Lab work: Benedictine University students conduct research and science experiments at the Michael and Kay Birck Hall of Science. Students have extra opportunities for hands-on research during the summer. | Photo courtesy of Benedictine University.

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Today’s job market requires some kind of in-the-field training, primarily through student internships or research projects. Most area universities offer intriguing opportunities in the summer for undergraduates to get started in their fields -- from the sciences through the humanities and even in criminal justice. Following is a sampling of such programs.

Benedictine University in Lisle added a part-time option to its biological studies summer research program in 2011, which allows students to continue their regular coursework during the summer term while getting some research experience under their belts, said LeeAnn Smith, assistant department chair of Biological Sciences.

“Our students have an opportunity to apply to any other natural sciences [outside of biology], and the part-time offering is a unique aspect,” she said.

Benedictine’s summer research programs “run the gamut” in subject matter, Smith said.

A recent research project studied the effects of taurine, an ingredient found in energy drinks like Red Bull, in fruit flies. Another looked at a cellular model of McCune-Albright syndrome, a disease caused by a genetic mutation that affects skin pigmentation and the skeletal system. Students helped create and screen a library of 32,000 gene mutations on the cellular model to determine that disrupting a particular hydrogen bond can suppress this syndrome-causing mutation.

An additional benefit to Benedictine’s internal offerings is that they better prepares students who seek to apply for external research programs later.

“It increases their likelihood that they will be accepted,” Smith said.

National Louis University in Chicago offers a summer course called “Introduction to Forensic Science,” which supports its recently added criminal justice major. The university has offered coursework in this field for four years as part of the criminal justice minor requirement.

Some of the hands-on activities for undergraduates include taking and processing fingerprints in person, lifting latent prints left at a scene and using a fuming chamber to lift prints from more difficult surfaces such as paper or even flesh.

Additional training includes firearms familiarization and examining ballistics, DNA, hair samples and footprints.

“Our Bachelor of Arts Program in Criminal Justice is just in its third quarter of existence,” said Richard Schak, the program’s director. “We have almost doubled the [enrollment] projections and the students and faculty are making some great connections.”

This introduction to forensics gives criminal justice students hands-on training with former and current working professionals. The course isn’t meant to make students experts, he said. “It allows them to experience what the work is like. ‘Do it,’ not just talk about it.”

DePaul University in Chicago offers several “Research Experience for Undergraduates” programs (REUs), which are projects -- often off-campus -- funded by the National Science Foundation.

One of those programs, MedIX: Medical Informatics Experience, is entering its ninth year. In this program, students get to apply their training to projects that utilize medical data in analysis or diagnosis. They also learn about what research in general entails as well as get the chance to answer questions typically not addressed during the academic year, said Jacob Furst, associate professor in DePaul’s College of Computing and Digital Media.

“In regular classes, any question the professor asks students already has an answer. In research, we focus on asking questions that don’t have answers yet,” he said.

This summer, Furst is leading a project called Prediction of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

“The essential question is, ‘Can self-report surveys be used to predict chronic fatigue?’ However, during the course of the research, we’ll probably end up addressing a number of other questions (none with existing answers) and may not even answer the one I proposed. Such is the nature of research – you never really know where you’re going until you get there.” he said.

Another benefit to the practical application of classroom training is the chance to publish a study. “Those who publish during the program get something tangible and valuable to put on their resume or graduate school application,” Furst said. “Even those who don’t publish will have something for their graduate school application.”

Experience in the field during undergraduate study can also help students determine whether their current academic path is right for them, he added.

Other academic areas at DePaul incorporate REUs to supplement classroom instruction.

Jane Huang, associate professor in the School of Computer Science, Telecommunications and Information Systems, said summer research in her department gives students an opportunity to work with advanced students as a member of a research team. They also receive individual attention, which the classroom cannot always provide, and students often have the opportunity to publish and present their work.

“All Summer REUs that we have hired have done extremely well when it has come to applying for jobs,” she said. “One student was interviewed at Microsoft and arrived at his interview to find that they had a copy of his published paper on the desk. His research ended up being the primary topic of conversation at his interview.”

Like DePaul, Loyola University in Chicago has several undergraduate research programs under one umbrella -- the Loyola Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (LUROP). Andrew Warne, undergraduate research program manager, said the university has six summer research programs for undergrads, and most are in the sciences. The choices are wide-ranging and differently structured.

“Some match students with a faculty member, sometimes an advanced graduate student,” Warne said. “And some students apply for a research program with a certain faculty member and project budget.”

The most recent addition to the summer roster is Molecular and Computational Biology Summer Research, a two-student program with a complex name, but a project that’s close to home. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the participating students will study viruses in Lake Michigan, carrying their results from this summer over to other students who will participate during the program’s five-year duration.

Warne said the Provost Fellowship for Undergraduate Research, another summer offering that he directly oversees, is for any student in the hard or social sciences, or even in humanities. He said 45 students universitywide are taking advantage of the fellowship to complement their classroom studies. Examples of this summer’s proposed projects include examining a malaria parasite protein strain, a quantitative exploration of using TIF (tax increment financing) funds to address affordable housing needs, and a literary analysis of graphic novels from a feminist perspective.