Scientific discovery can alter undergrads’ career paths
For agronomy and soils major Jake Patterson, the job he landed in professor emeritus Edzard van Santen’s plant-breeding research lab his sophomore year at Auburn was everything he was looking for: It was on campus, it was part-time and—the biggie—it paid.
He was hired as a student research assistant, which, translated, meant a flunky, a gofer, a manual laborer, a field hand or whatever lab personnel needed him to be or do to help them carry out their scientific breeding trials on turfgrass, biomass and forage crops. That role was fine with Patterson. After all, a job was a job. Clock in, clock out and live for payday.
But at some point along the way, the now-junior got hooked on this thing called research, and the next thing you know, the young man from Madison County’s New Market community was shelving his original plans for a career in agricultural sales in favor of one in research.
“It wasn’t until after I started working for Dr. van Santen that I discovered research and weed science, and I loved it,” Patterson says. “That’s when I decided that graduate school and research are for me. My plan now is to get my master’s, and then my Ph.D., in weed science.”
Patterson’s is not an uncommon story. Many an undergraduate in the college, past and present, has accidentally discovered a passion for research while performing menial lab tasks for minimal wages.
That’s what happened to Klint McCafferty three years ago when he got a job in poultry science professor Bill Dozier’s poultry nutrition lab. For the most part, McCafferty spent his on-the-clock hours running lab analyses on samples from researchers’ experiments.
“I had no idea that research was my calling or really even an option when I came to Auburn, but that job, where I was seeing science applied every day, was intriguing to me, and I began to see how important research is,” says McCafferty.
He wound up applying for and being awarded a 2014-15 undergraduate research fellowship, which includes a generous stipend, through Auburn’s Office of Undergraduate Research and, with Dozier as his faculty mentor, he conducted an independent study evaluating the use of wheat in broiler diets. McCafferty is now a second-year poultry science master’s student of Dozier’s and is on his way to a career in research.
Involving students in research in their undergraduate years is essential, not only for their future success but for the future of science and discovery. That’s how Alan Wilson sees it.
“It’s so important to get undergraduate students into the labs and in the field so that they have a chance to ‘catch’ the science bug,” says Wilson, an associate professor and undergrad research mentor in fisheries, aquaculture and aquatic sciences.
“Research is not for everyone, of course, but I am certain that more undergraduates would pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers if they engaged in research under the guidance of great faculty, staff and graduate student research mentors,” he says.
Frequent faculty mentor Leonardo De La Fuente concurs.
“Doing well on tests isn’t everything for students,” the associate professor of plant pathology says. “They need to know how to <ital>apply<ital> the concepts they learn in class and memorize for tests. Research gives them that opportunity.
“I did research as an undergrad—that’s what led me to my career—and I want students today to have that same kind of experience.”
Fortunately, they can. In the College of Agriculture and in other colleges across the Auburn campus, student research is wide open to—and strongly encouraged among—undergrads. And an increased emphasis in recent years on the research opportunities available throughout the college and on the substantial benefits, present and future, that students with undergraduate research experience realize appear to have stimulated interest.
“More and more students are seeking out opportunities to do research these days,” says Terry Brandebourg, Auburn animal sciences associate professor and undergrad research enthusiast who’s always in recruitment mode. “As advisor for the pre-vet club and a person with the reputation of fostering a lot of undergrad research, I have a number of students who approach me wanting to talk about research opportunities, both within our college and across campus.”
Stephanie Campbell was one of those, and she did so after Brandebourg delivered his undergrad-research sales pitch to her freshman Orientation to Animal Sciences class back in the fall of ’13.
“That was the first I had heard about research opportunities for undergraduates,” the senior animal sciences/ biomedical sciences double major says. “I thought it sounded kind of fun, and I knew it would look good for graduate school if I didn’t end up liking it, so I reached out to Dr. Brandebourg.”
She didn’t end up liking it; she ended up loving it. In her ongoing, for-credit study in Brandebourg’s lab, she is investigating whether clock genes—which regulate circadian rhythms and control one’s 24-hour body clock—play a role in the development and growth of fat cells and, thus, obesity.
Her research project on top of an already-tough course load and a tight schedule as a scholarship Lady Tigers volleyball player have made things hectic at times over her four years, but she never let any of them, including her research, slide.
“With research, the biggest thing for me has been figuring out that I really enjoy it,” she says. “I think it is so cool to be able to do experiments and learn new information that others may have never discovered before. I also enjoy the challenge of thinking through different problems and trying to figure out how to fix them. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve decided to pursue a Ph.D., on top of an M.D.”
And that—getting excited about scientific discovery—is what the undergrad research experience is all about, says Megan Ross, the College of Ag’s student development and programs coordinator. Her responsibilities include managing the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program for the college. As such, she ensures that current fellows in the college—seven ag majors were awarded 2016-17 fellowships—receive their stipends and submit reports regularly to Auburn’s Office of Undergraduate Research. She also markets the program in an effort to encourage more agriculture students to apply for the prestigious fellowships. And in the process, she encounters many current and prospective student researchers who aren’t selected as fellows.
“I advise them not to let not getting a fellowship derail them,” she says. “Our faculty are great about involving students in their research, and I encourage them to not be afraid to talk with faculty and ask them about research opportunities.
“There is much research to be done to make this world a better and safer place,” she says. “It’s exciting when students see the value of science and want to be a part of something that could potentially change the world.”