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Research Q&A: Wondering how to participate? An expert weighs in

Courtesy Chris Elsner

Christopher Elsner, program coordinator with the Office of Undergraduate Research. In laboratories across campus, undergraduates are involved in work alongside esteemed scientists learning valuable skills, but new students and freshman may not know where to start. 

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Every year at the University of Arizona, thousands of researchers attempt to answer hundreds of questions in order to understand everything from the biology of cancer to the science of sustainability. 

In laboratories that bring millions of dollars in grants to UA, undergraduates work alongside esteemed scientists valuable skills and applying the knowledge gained in the classroom.

Research is a hallmark of any degree in the College of Science, with an estimated 85 percent of graduates participating in research during their undergraduate career, according to Christopher Elsner, a program coordinator with the Office of Undergraduate Research.

Research opportunities can be found all across campus and disciplines, from anthropology to English and business management to teaching strategies. 

Freshmen stepping onto a college campus for the first time may be excited to contribute to all the great science happening at UA, but are unsure of where to start. 

Daily Wildcat reporter Randall Eck talked with Elsner about the benefits of undergraduate research and how freshman can find opportunities to participate in research on campus. The interview is edited here for concision. 

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Daily Wildcat: What is the mission of the Office of Undergraduate Research?

Chris Elsner: Our mission at the Office of Undergraduate Research is to help get more students involved in research programs. We work primarily with the College of Science but are not limited to the College of Science. We try to help promote research opportunities, make them accessible to all students, and provide support to faculty to help students get the most out of their research experiences. We have a lot of resources available through our website to support students.

DW: What does a student gain from doing research during their undergraduate career?

CE: Research is really the most quintessential extracurricular learning activity students can be involved in as an undergraduate. It is an opportunity for students to apply what they have been learning in their academics in a real-world, hands-on setting. Most research nowadays is inter-disciplinary pushing students to bring together many different skills in their research. A lot of those skills students would not pick up from just from going to class. In particular, data analysis, statistics, coding, and effectively communicating their research are all invaluable skills learned by being involved in research.

DW: What advice would you give a Freshman looking to work in a research lab?

CE: First step, go to our website. That is the best place for freshman to get started in the College of Science. It is also important to remember that research is not limited to just STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors and can also come in the form of internships or industry focused experiences. We have a specific area on our website called “Getting Started in Research” and it maps our first steps. One of the biggest things students can do as a freshman to get involved in research is to start thinking about what interests them. We can help students identify and refine some of those interests.

DW: What would you say to students who feel like they are too inexperienced to start looking for a research experience as a freshman? 

CE: Try not to be intimidated. More often than not, faculty members want to start working with freshmen. Realistically, if students work on a research project, even if those students are seniors, they are not going to be experts. It is going to take a semester or a year to get up to speed in that lab and learn the necessary skills, equipment, procedures and research questions. The advantage of getting started early is that students have plenty of time to get up to speed. Students can start to apply the knowledge from their classes and make those connections much earlier on. By the time students are juniors and seniors, they are in a position to be making significant contributions to research with a faculty member, be a published author, and see their research projects come to fruition. 

DW: Does the Office of Undergraduate Research offer any financial resources for students? 

CE: The Office of Undergraduate Research does not offer students any financial resources. The College of Science does have several scholarships for students conducting research such as the Van de Verde Undergraduate Research Memorial Scholarship. Our website also provides resources to help find funding. Getting involved in clubs is also a way to have greater access to resources to help travel to conferences to present research. As a student, presenting and communicating research is an important part of the scientific process. 

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DW: What other advice would you offer students looking to get involved in research? 

CE: Our website has a searchable database of faculty and their research. We also have a catalog of links to research both on and off campus. Our faculty members are very busy people and sometimes might be inaccessible; graduate students are great people to connect with as they understand the undergraduate experience and may be easier to get in contact with.  It is really important for freshmen to start thinking about building relationships with faculty. I strongly recommend taking advantage of office hours. Sometimes the best way to get involved in research is learning about opportunities directly from faculty. When reaching out to faculty, students need to use a professional tone. When doing research for credit, students should participate in the 100% Engagement program to get the most out of their experience.

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