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UC Berkeley undergraduates show off their research at UC Day in Sacramento, March 13 & 14
13 Mar 2000

By Robert Sanders, Public Affairs

BERKELEY-- The University of California, Berkeley's research prowess is recognized around the world, but few realize that it's not only the faculty and graduate students who contribute. Undergraduates are playing an increasing role, too.

Opportunities for undergraduates have always been there - many current faculty first whetted their appetites for research while undergraduates - but the campus has instituted programs that encourage more students to participate.

As a result, these students derive much more from the Berkeley educational experience.

"I have much more contact with professors," said Paul Frank, a senior environmental science major in the College of Letters & Science who is working on a project with environmental engineering professor Alexander Horne. "Most of my friends only get to hear professors lecture or maybe take a small class with them."

Frank is one of 16 undergraduates from eight UC campuses traveling to Sacramento today and Tuesday (March 13 and 14) for "UC Day in Sacramento," an annual event organized for legislators by the Alumni Associations of the University of California. This year UC alumni and friends will focus on "A Century of Discovery," highlighting the educational and research advances that have contributed to the state's economy and quality of life.

Following a Tuesday morning breakfast, several of the UC undergraduates and their faculty advisors will discuss how student research opportunities enrich undergraduate research. All the students will present posters about their research.

Frank, for example, is working with Horne to find the best way to encourage bacteria to gobble up metal waste in acid mine runoff. Toxic runoff is a serious problem in the Sierra, and Frank has been feeding bottles of the microbes different nutrients to see which best help them clean up the pollution.

"I never would have discovered how much I like research if I hadn't gotten involved in this research project," Frank said.

While Frank is conducting research required by his environmental science major, many UC Berkeley undergraduates get involved on their own, often by just walking into a professor's lab or office and asking to help.

In the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology, one quarter of the 1,200 majors participate in research.

"Half the papers I've published in the last 10 to 15 years have had undergraduates as coauthors," said Professor Gary Firestone, head of the department's Undergraduate Affairs Committee. "They work in my lab alongside graduate students as a big team."

Robert Full, professor of integrative biology, is so proud of the 60-plus undergrads who have worked with him over the past 14 years that he has posted their names, publications and awards on a Web page subtitled, "Cal students are the best!"

While the tradition of undergraduate research reaches back a long way in the sciences, it has been less common in the humanities. That is changing with the growth of a campus-wide program to match faculty with undergraduates in research projects across all disciplines.

Called the Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP), it began in 1991 and this semester hooked up 150 faculty with 450 students. Mostly juniors and seniors, the students are at a point in their college careers where they want to try research to see if they like it.

"Often undergraduates come in at the beginning of a project and get to see how projects develop," said Terry Strathman, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. "They come away with an idea of the dedication required, and often an understanding that part of being a scholar or scientist is knowing how to deal with and learn from frustration and failure."

Professor Renate Holub, director of Interdisciplinary Studies, enjoys working with undergraduates so much she sometimes has had 15 working with her in a semester.

"For my project, undergraduates work much better than graduate students, who often have their own projects," said Holub, who has been working through URAP for five years. "I've built a group over the past few years that is extremely helpful to me now."

Holub is interested in the European Union, particularly the changes occurring as other ethnic groups, such as the Turks, enter the traditionally uniform cultures of Europe. She and her students search for and review commentary by European intellectuals and political leaders about the rise of a multicultural Europe.

"Our campus is so diverse and the students have such different backgrounds, they are invaluable to my work on multicultural Europe," Holub said. "From my perspective, where URAP is fantastic is we get to know the students quite well, which is different from teaching. This helps us to better support them with letters of recommendation in the future. And without URAP, it would be harder to find the appropriate students to work with in a research environment."

UC Berkeley graduate Athena Trakadas took advantage of URAP during both her junior and senior years, working on two separate archaeology projects. Her archival work with classics professor Stephen Miller, who has been excavating for 29 years at the site of the ancient Panhellenic Games in Nemea, Greece, gave her the opportunity to travel to Greece at the end of her senior year.

"Working on this project exposed me to a different level of research, experience that I didn't get from my courses," Trakadas said. "I learned how to put everything together: how to archive, how to conduct more involved research, how to properly document material for publication - basically what it means to be a professional archaeologist."

After graduation in 1997 she went to Texas A&M for an MA in nautical archaeology and is back again working temporarily in Miller's laboratory and contemplating a PhD.

While many of those who participate end up continuing in the research realm, they don't necessarily remain in academia. Firestone says many of his students have gone on to medical school or biotechnology firms. Holub finds many of her students going abroad to experience the new, multicultural Europe, then enrolling in graduate school.

"They learn leadership skills in a research environment and carry away a new, collaborative approach to research, learning and study," she said.

Students participating in URAP not only get course credits, but a small stipend, too, if they continue during the summer. Nevertheless, the greatest value to the student may be the richness research gives to their four-year tenure at Cal.

"Frequently the labs or research groups become a home, a place on campus where students feel they are connected," Strathman said.

Firestone welcomes them with open arms.

"Undergraduates add to the research atmosphere on campus - they're enthusiastic, high energy, creative and really interesting people," he said. "It's a real plus to have them in the lab."


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