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Inside Iowa State, a newspaper for faculty and staff, is published by the Office of University Relations.

March 10, 2006

Undergraduates gain experience, skills on research projects

by Dan Kuester

Undergraduate students sometimes are overshadowed when it comes to research. But many ISU undergrads are involved in research that will have an impact on our lives -- from computing to psychology. In this second of a two-part series, Inside Iowa State highlights some of the surprising work undergrads are doing.

Christine Merrill

Christine Merrill

Christine Merrill, senior, psychology

Research professors: Meg Gerrard and Rick Gibbons

My work on the project:

I lead student participants through a survey on their attitudes and opinions about various topics (mostly risky behaviors).

Why I make time for this:

Participating in research as an undergraduate provides me with experience to include on my transcript, increasing my chances of being accepted into graduate school. The work also prepares me for graduate work in psychology.

The moments I wonder why:

Some days it consists of the tedious task of entering data into a computer, which most people don't think about when they hear about research. People generally think about being in a lab and running experiments.

Its redeeming moments:

The fun part of the research is meeting a lot of different people -- those that I work with and the students who participate in the study.

I've learned:

The data that is collected may not support your thesis. Therefore, you should keep an open mind in order to explain why your research turned out differently than expected.

What's in it for me:

I do this for the experience for graduate school and the credit for graduation. And, the research is interesting and applicable to the lives of many college students.

Dan Taylor

Dan Taylor

Dan Taylor, senior, biology

Research professor: Pat Schnable

Our project:

The Schnable lab is determining the DNA code for corn. As a lab assistant, I prepare DNA samples for a process called polymerase chain reaction. PCR multiplies DNA pieces so they can more easily be studied. From there, the sequence of DNA pieces can be determined.

Why I make time for this:

I want first-hand experience in a research setting. It keeps me sharp on different lab techniques and adds a dimension to genetics that you can't get in a classroom.

How this will affect my future:

This experience goes beyond just having a part-time job. I plan to go into some sort of research field after graduation and the skills I have learned in the lab will help tremendously. Not only did I learn the technical aspects of research, but also how to manage data and how to relate to people from different cultures.

The downside:

Sometimes results take a long time to get. You can work on a project for years and not have many results. It takes time and patience to complete a good research project. Also, there is pressure to produce results, which can add to the stress of running a research project.

My valuable lessons:

Diligence and patience are required. Mistakes happen. You don't always get the results you expected, which is why it is called research.

Michael Ekstrand

Michael Ekstrand

Michael Ekstrand, senior, computer engineering

Research professor: Brett Bode

My team's project:

I write graphical programs to allow system administrators to view the current status of computers in their cluster, see what jobs are running and analyze how well resources -- such as hard drive space and network -- are being used.

Best part of the job:

I got to show a preliminary version of a network visualization component of my project at the international supercomputing conference in Seattle. We displayed it on one of the computers in our exhibit booth. That whole trip was pretty awesome. We attended workshops, met vendors and potential grad school professors, and learned about the direction of the high performance computing industry.

Why I do this:

It's fun. I love computers and programming, and this gives me an opportunity to get paid for it. It's that whole "figure out what you love to do -- then find someone to pay you to do it" kind of thing.

Looking ahead:

I plan to go to graduate school, with the end goal of eventually teaching and researching at a university. So the hands-on research experience is beneficial.

Lessons learned:

Things aren't always as easy as they look. And sometimes, an easier technology to work with may be a royal pain to deploy.

Photos by Bob Elbert