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Lab Tab: Student Researcher Numbers Bloom in Summer

(Posted July 28, 2014)

Vince Buonaccorsi, professor of biology

Acute observers of the Juniata College campus during the summer months have noticed there seems to be markedly more science researchers striding the halls of the von Liebig Center, BAC, and elsewhere than in years past. Biologist Vince Buonaccorsi offers some hypotheses on why more students are working in Juniata labs.

Q: To what do you attribute the expansion in the number of students? Has the hiring of new professors with an interest in research been the engine or is it more diverse sources of funding?

A: Both new faculty and new sources of funding have been important in developing the summer research program. Most student research opportunities originate from extramural grants written by faculty. Our largest numbers are made possible by having a couple major external funding sources, supporting about a dozen students each, combined with a variety of smaller sources. In the last decade, our major funding sources were from the von Liebig gift and Merck, both of which waned. Currently our major funding sources are II-VI Corporation and HHMI. Recently hired professors in the natural sciences (Gina Lamendella, Jason Chan, Will Ames, John Unger, Dan Dries, Matt Beaky) are major contributors to the research program, mentoring over half of the summer students this year. Biologist Chris Grant and postdoctoral researcher Mark Peterson also are high-impact contributors.

Q: How does the funding work for the students?
A: There is always more demand than there is funding for students, so the source and amount of funding for students varies. Most projects include an amount sufficient to cover expenses for room and board, as well as a weekly stipend.

Q: Obviously one of the larger grants in recent years was the HHMI grant, but has the number of granting agencies increased as well?

A: I talked to our grants coordinator, Mike Keating, and he's noted an interesting "switch." Before 2008 our grant awards (overall) tended to be 60/40 weighted to government funding. After 2008 we seem to be running 60/40 in favor of private foundation grants. In fact, we've also seen a rise in the number of private corporate contracts, to the point where they are now about 10 percent of our total grants.

Q: Are more students seeking out research experiences without prompting by professors? Or do faculty continue to recruit heavily for research students?

A: There are always students interested in research careers at Juniata, and many approach faculty on their own to learn about research opportunities. Students are assigned to advisers working in their area of interest, which frequently develops into research apprenticeships. In biology we are debuting a new pipeline to train students, a class called "Biological Science Research Methods," with different sections taught by different professors. It is a great way for large numbers of students to get real research experience, and is the source of many of our summer research students. This class is an outgrowth of the Juniata/HHMI certificate in Genomics, Ethics and Society.

Q: How does having more research students available in the summer tie into faculty development? Does having more students make it more likely to generate articles, presentations?

A: Undergraduate research is a high-impact teaching practice because, in general, the person who does the work is the person who learns, and the students do the work in our summer programs. Students are given a problem to get started on, but lots of flexibility in how to reach their goals. The longer students are involved, the more ownership they take over their projects, and the more likely they are to develop the resilience required to bring the project to the final stage of completion: publication in the peer reviewed literature. As teacher/scholars, it is important for faculty to continue to make contributions to our field. For students, it is a real thrill to see their name immortalized in the literature for the first time It solidifies their identification as a member of the scientific community.

John Wall, director of media relations

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Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.