CURCA matches undergraduates
with faculty research opportunities
Leela Christian-Tabak heard UB’s message about undergraduate research—loud, clear and early. After spending much of her undergraduate time doing hands-on laboratory work, she is a promising senior with a research mentor, a wealth of national and international experiences, and a graduate-school-ready resume that jumps off the table.
“Research taught me to work slowly and carefully to achieve best results,” says Christian-Tabak. “Regular lab group meetings taught me how research presentations are conducted and what types of questions scientists ask. I learned not to be shy about asking my own questions. Generating my own data and regularly watching these presentations improved my ability to follow and comprehend scientific presentations.”
If any campus organization is responsible for encouraging these student-research connections, it’s UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities, or CURCA. Designed to assist new students in finding a research project or research mentor, the center serves as an academic matchmaker between students and the research projects looking for collegial help.
And with the expansion of UB’s downtown medical corridor—specifically the opening of UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center and partnerships with UB’s New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, the opportunities for more research positions and more student mentors have never been better, according to CURCA administrators.
“When I say research, people think of test tubes and lab coats, which is perfect,” says CURCA Director Timothy Tryjankowski. “We have many faculty and researchers across the UB campuses performing real research in math, science, engineering, medicine, technology.
“But being such an all-encompassing university, we also have experts and researchers working in the social sciences, English, history, visual studies, performance arts and on and on. CURCA—the Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity—shows that at UB an undergrad can delve into real research across any and all disciplines, across any and all areas of our society.”
And as much as UB administrators, faculty members and students are proud of CURCA, it’s just one example of the opportunities built into an academic system that can enrich the undergraduate experience.
“UB undergraduates get so much more than academic degrees,” says Mara B. Huber, assistant vice provost for undergraduate education. “In addition to their core studies, they can participate in mentored research, the Undergraduate Academies, and accelerated science and technology opportunities. UB students can graduate with skills, competences and experiences that are customized to their interests and set them apart in this increasingly competitive, knowledge-based economy.
“UB offers a world of opportunities,” Huber says, “and I encourage undergraduates to take full advantage.”
Whatever the specific academic program, many thriving and successful intellectual exchanges between students and professors go through CURCA.
“I can honestly say CURCA guided me on my path to undergraduate research,” says Christian-Tabak, whose goal is to work professionally in an engineering job, and who says her “ultimate goal” is to “make the world a better place.”
And like so many others at UB to benefit from that undergraduate research dimension, it all began with CURCA.
“As a freshman, I attended several workshops, just to get an idea of what was going on at UB—it’s really overwhelming how much goes on here,” she says. “The CURCA workshop gave me an idea of how to contact a professor and what to expect from something as exotic-sounding as research.”
Christian-Tabak is a shining example of a stated priority in UB’s plan: commitment to undergraduate research experiences is one of the strategic strengths expressed and endorsed by the past two UB presidents. This goal aims to blend two important university ingredients: UB’s world-class research resources and its increasingly talented students who want to be part of exciting scientific discovery.
It’s something “truly unique” that UB offers, according to Tryjankowski.
“This is one of the many qualities that differentiates a UB undergraduate experience from one at any number of other places,” says Tryjankowski. “I am thrilled for the UB students and the research/faculty mentors that get to engage in these powerful experiences on a daily basis. I truly have a great job here on campus—helping to bridge any gaps and make those connections.”
CURCA’s goal is to engage the brightest students who come to UB—the kind UB is attracting more and more.
“We are seeing incoming students with higher GPAs and higher SAT-ACT scores than ever before,” says Tryjankowski. “Those students have options on where they will go to college. By having real testimonials of current UB undergrads, we can easily highlight that the great work and research being done by our world-class faculty and staff are right there for the incoming undergrads to get involved in and contribute to.”
Christian-Tabak is typical, says Tryjankowski. Many of the top students coming to UB want to “change the world, improve the world,” he says. “Through CURCA, we can give them that opportunity the first day they set foot on campus as undergraduates.”
Tryjankowski also says education research shows that students engaged with their studies—especially students engaged in a working relationship with their faculty—have a higher success rate in college.
“They have higher GPAs in college, they graduate in a shorter time period, often times four years or less, and they go on to graduate and professional schools more often,” he says. “Thus, CURCA not only attracts students to attend UB, it then propels them through their college years with a meaningful and rewarding experience that best prepares them for the next step in their academic or professional careers.
“It’s a win-win for the students involved, as well as the faculty/research mentors who consistently comment on how important the student work was to the overall success of their own projects.”
Christian-Tabak more than serves as one of those testimonials Tryjankowski is so fond of. After hearing about and landing a research-experience position in chemical engineering at UB, Christian-Tabak applied for and received a 10-week REU—Research Experience for Undergraduates—from Rice University in Houston. She returned to her UB research in the fall, and with extensive help from Tryjankowski, Christian-Tabak wrote a grant application for CURCA funds that allowed her to present a poster at a conference in Japan.
“The CURCA grant helped me have a really tremendous trip and many fascinating experiences,” she says. “I visited very-high-tech labs at Osaka University, saw a presentation by the researcher who invented carbon nanotubes, took subways around Osaka, visited beautiful parks and temples, tried to converse with locals in my poor, limited, but marginally sufficient Japanese, and many other things.
“I am glad CURCA created an atmosphere for me that encouraged me to start research early on. It allowed time for even more positive experiences to build on my first one.”
For those not familiar with research, Tryjankowski says it’s important to remember the unpredictable nature of research. Some would call it a little bit of magic.
“This is not a classroom lab, where faculty know A + B will yield C,” says Tryjankowski. “This is the great unknown, as research or creative projects often are. So it becomes a team, working toward a discovery or new creation. That is a powerful and rewarding experience for everyone involved.”