Planting the seeds for new generations of researchers

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Planting the seeds for new generations of researchers

By Patrick C. Miller, Staff Writer

More University of North Dakota undergraduates will have the opportunity to get involved early in environmental research, thanks to a scholarship program funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The US MASTER (Undergraduate Scholarships with Mathematics and Science Training in Environmental Research) is the brainchild of Alena Kubatova, associate professor in the UND Department of Chemistry. Collaborating with her to develop the program are Rebecca Simmons and Brett Goodwin, biology; Gregory Vandeburg, geography; and Ryan Zerr, mathematics.

The six-year NSF grant provides students with four years of support for up to $10,000 a year. Kubatova and her collaborators are working with other UND branches, including American Indian Student Services, TRIO Programs, Enrollment Services, and Distance Education. Their goal is to recruit eight freshmen or transfer students for the fall semester.

Reaching out to new prospects

“The major intention of the grant is to bring in underrepresented students,” Kubatova said. “These are first-generation students and students with financial need. Statistically, these are the major obstacles in completion of an undergraduate degree. We are also targeting American Indians in our recruitment because there aren’t many in the sciences.”

An analytical chemist who studies techniques to determine the composition of aerosols in the atmosphere that contribute to climate change, Kubatova has a good reason for making environmentally oriented research projects the program’s primary focus.

“Young people know and care about the environment if it’s not clean,” she explained. “They’ll do environmental research because they understand environmental problems. We are looking for talented young students because the research has to be done by people who are motivated.”

Kubatova saw a need for the program because many undergrads don’t have the opportunity for involvement in research until they’re juniors or seniors. The US MASTER program gives incoming freshmen two semesters of orientation to scientific research, time they can use to help decide the direction they want to take.

“During their first year, the students will be getting a comprehensive idea of the various fields and people involved in different areas of research,” Kubatova said. “This will help them decide to apply to work under these projects.”

The students will attend seminars conducted by UND faculty members from biology, chemistry, geography and mathematics before being assigned a project and mentor. They will also visit research labs, such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Center and the Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC).

“From my perspective, environmental research is about soil or air pollution and how things get contaminated,” Kubatova said. “But environmental research can also involve evolutional changes in biology. It can be applied in mathematics and geography. In the seminars, researchers from a variety of disciplines will present different aspects of their work, have discussions and interact with the students.”

Impact through interaction

A native of the Czech Republic, Kubatova came to UND from Belgium to work in the laboratory of internationally known scientist Steven Hawthorne, a research manager at the EERC. As a post-doc, she not only learned a great deal about analytical techniques using mass spectrometry but she also worked with students and learned how to write grants. She originally came to stay at the EERC half a year, but it turned into five years.

”During that time I started to teach, I realized that I liked the interaction with students,” Kubatova said. “The class interaction is great, but in the lab, you feel you have more impact with that personal interaction.”

The desire to teach led to accepting a position in UND’s Department of Chemistry in 2005 where Kubatova usually employs two or three undergraduates on her projects. A student who conducted research on the longevity of wood preservatives for Marvin Windows received an award to attend the American Chemical Society national meeting.

“I think undergraduates are very important in the lab,” Kubatova said. “The tough part for faculty who are doing research is to figure out how to involve undergraduates. You really try to get national-level funding for research, which means that you need to write proposals and provide accomplishments at that level.”

Finding the right fit

Knowing how an undergrad can properly fit into a project is another challenge.

“Undergraduates are initially more task-oriented, although it depends on the individual,” Kubatova noted. “They have to learn many new things, so you have to be very careful with the projects that are appropriate to their experience. You don’t want them to get overwhelmed. You want them to learn, but you also want to get some productivity.”

The knowledge and experience undergraduates receive in the lab often helps them determine the direction of their education and career choices.

“There are those who think they know what they want to do and then decide to explore more options after doing research,” Kubatova said. “That’s great. It’s the best time because once you graduate, the longer you persist in one field, the harder it is to switch. If they do research initially, it’s the perfect time to make decisions. It’s really about broadening horizons.”

Read the rest of UND Discovery Magazine

Sponsored research programs at the University of North Dakota had a state and regional economic impact of $217.7 million in fiscal year 2010, an increase of $22.4 million over the previous year. — Division of Research and Economic Development

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