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Undergraduate Research Key to Recruiting and Retaining UB Students

By Avery Schneider

Release Date: December 4, 2009

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UB faculty member Gino Biondini leads a group of undergraduate students in a research project focused on computing.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- As a research-intensive institution, the University at Buffalo is committed to providing rewarding opportunities for research discovery, even to undergraduate students, a group not traditionally provided many opportunities to work with faculty engaged in research.

And many undergrads find that when it comes to research, they discover more than just facts and figures -- they discover themselves.

"Research isn't just for graduate students anymore, undergraduate students want access to research opportunities, too," explains Tim Tryjankowski, coordinator of UB's Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (CURCA).

"Research is a way to attract undergraduate students to UB and let them know what they can accomplish once they're here."

Under UB Provost Satish K. Tripathi, Tryjankowski and other UB administrators have worked to open up research opportunities to all UB students, not just graduate or honors students.

UB's CURCA office was created five years ago as way to improve retention of undergraduate students and enhance their educational experience. Today, CURCA's Web site, http://curca.buffalo.edu, features more than 100 postings for undergraduate research opportunities in many fields of study at UB – ranging from how to design "walkable" buildings to studying the development of upper respiratory disease -- and the office connects students to various UB academic departments across campus for even more opportunities.

On Dec. 8, UB will offer an Undergraduate Research Information Fair to provide students with information about research experiences available both on and off campus. At the end of each academic year, student researchers present their work at UB's Celebration of Academic Excellence.

CURCA's creation was spurred partly by a survey of undergraduate students who had left UB prior to graduating. The results revealed that while many students cited the typical reasons for leaving -- change of major to a field not offered, financial issues, homesickness -- a significant number chalked it up to a lack of research opportunities.

"The majority of undergraduate students recruited to UB were not getting access to research opportunities. We needed to change that, to offer links to research to make the undergraduate experience at UB unique," Tryjankowski says.

For Jane Park, a junior majoring in nursing and a student researcher in the UB Department of African American Studies, research has offered a different way to learn and grow. Park is helping conduct a research survey of racial attitudes among black, white, Latino and Asian students.

"It's definitely a completely new experience," says Park. "You're not in your room studying from textbooks, you're not listening to lectures. You're actually getting to know a professor who is interested in a field that you have interests in. You're doing hands-on work using research methods," she says, "and you're meeting tons of new people."

UB lecturer Wesley Carter, who supervises Park, regularly offers research opportunities to UB undergrads, and has been pleased with the results. "The students I've recruited have been excellent. They're very inquisitive, and they learn how to get the job done. That's what I'm impressed with.

"Performing research helps students to realize there's more to academics, and more to life, than just getting grades and making money. It helps them realize there's real value to exploration and discovery."

Some research projects offered by CURCA, such as the Undergraduate Research Group Experiences to Compute (URGE to Compute) program, require students to meet certain academic qualifications. The URGE program is one of 13 programs of its kind nationwide, funded by the National Science Foundation; it recruits students majoring in mathematics, applied mathematics and mathematical physics who have taken a preliminary course dealing with a yearly project theme. This year, UB students are conducting research projects having to do with stochastic processes -- essentially, all things random.

"One of the valuable aspects of this project for students is learning how to collaborate," says John Ringland, associate professor of mathematics, who serves as principal investigator and research project mentor for URGE.

For Associate Professor of Mathematics Gino Biondini, along with many other UB faculty mentors, the goal of involving undergrads is to "instill the research bug in them." For example, while exploring fiber optic communications in the URGE program, Biondini's student team has not only caught the bug, they've all decided to pursue graduate degrees, and some have decided to dedicate themselves to careers in research.

Zachary Marzec, a senior with a dual major in computer engineering and mathematics, is part of that team. He says that until he worked on this project, he didn't have a complete picture of what research and graduate school were all about.

"This project showed me what good research groups are, what a good mentor is," explains Marzec, "The same things I'll need to know when I'm doing research in grad school --how research progresses, how a good research team is formed -- I'm learning now."

When the time comes to apply to grad schools and jobs, Tryjankowski says the research opportunities UB students found as undergrads will set them apart from other students. It's an added edge for advancement.

"All of a sudden, your resume is leaping off the table because you have all these hands-on experiences grad schools are looking for in their faculty -- let alone an undergrad student," Tryjankowski says.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.