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Research Insights

Teaching students life skills through undergraduate research and innovation

One of the highlights of my Harbor Lights lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine is the bustle of interdisciplinary, vertically integrated research activities: a postdoctoral fellow working with a graduate student and an enthusiastic team of undergraduates, moving together toward a common goal.

One of the highlights of my Harbor Lights lab in the College of Veterinary Medicine is the bustle of interdisciplinary, vertically integrated research activities: a postdoctoral fellow working with a graduate student and an enthusiastic team of undergraduates, moving together toward a common goal. The laboratory is filled with creative energy as novice researchers learn from their more experienced colleagues, who in turn often learn new things simply from the fresh perspective their junior lab mates bring to the work. Five vastly different disciplines are represented under the unifying umbrella of the sixth discipline 鈥 veterinary medicine.

Environments like this are great examples of the university fulfilling its land-grant mission. Undergraduate students participating in experiential learning fuses together the two pillars of education and research unlike any other activity.

I view teaching and research as inseparable and simply two points on a continuum. At a research-intensive university like UGA, it鈥檚 often impossible to tease them apart. We routinely move concepts introduced in class into research discussions, just as on occasion we might bring research materials into the classroom to demonstrate key points. When postdoctoral fellows and graduate students help undergraduates perform a task or design a protocol, they are not just conducting research鈥攖hey are聽teaching.

Indeed, the benefits to undergraduates who are included in research stretch far beyond simply teaching them the specific tasks they perform in the lab (or the field, or the studio, or wherever the creative inquiry happens). They learn to communicate and collaborate with their colleagues. They learn critical thinking skills. They learn not to be stymied by failure鈥攚hich, as all of you know, happens a聽lot聽in research and innovation.

In short, they learn things that will transfer directly into the rest of their day and even into their post-college careers, whether in research or any other pursuit. The experience is life shaping.

This is a quick snapshot of why I鈥檓 such a huge supporter of UGA鈥檚聽聽(CURO). Based in the Morehead Honors College but open to any UGA undergraduate, CURO works with hundreds of students each year, pairing them with faculty mentors across the university. (CURO was also the subject of our聽most recent Research Live, which I highly encourage you to check out if you鈥檙e not familiar with the program.)

To be sure, CURO鈥檚 tangible benefits are many. Participating students register for courses with the 鈥淩鈥 suffix (4960R, 4970R, 4980R) and receive experiential learning credit. CURO awards聽聽to 500 students each year, as well as聽. The program also awards聽聽that support students鈥 ability to travel and present their work in a professional setting. Incoming first-year students can apply for the聽, which provides $3,000 per year and is renewable up to four years.

The highlight of the year is the annual聽, which features 10-minute student research presentations and a truly impressive poster session. Celebrating its 25th聽anniversary this year, the 2024 CURO Symposium will be held April 8-9 in the Classic Center and will feature more than 600 students from a wide variety of schools of departments.

Many of the presenting students are first-year or transfer students, and that鈥檚 another way undergraduate research can make the difference in an individual鈥檚 college career. Just think back to what brand-new students face at a large university. They may know few people. They may never have been inside a college classroom or laboratory or studio or field station. They may be away from home for the first time. It can be overwhelming.

So imagine you are a student new to UGA, and you are recruited to a research project. You鈥檙e given a simple, manageable role, one that perhaps occupies only a few hours per week. You meet people, including fellow undergrads, to whom you can turn with questions. You start to build your networking skills, develop your research identity, preview future areas of technical interest, and learn about your discipline of choice. You feel comfortable engaging in discussions with faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and staff members.

Most importantly, you begin to learn that success is defined not by achieving the end point you envision for every experiment, but by doing the work thoughtfully, being persistent and tenacious, being a problem solver, and embracing unexpected results. By not giving up when something goes wrong. By leaning on your colleagues and together persevering through the challenges. And by believing that some of life鈥檚 biggest lessons are learned through failure and that it is normal and OK to fail.

These are a few of the lessons I want the students in my lab to learn: If they combine sound engineering and science principles with a determined grit, the satisfaction of being a contributing member of a global research community will come.

聽when I attended the CURO Symposium, I couldn鈥檛 help but grin. I looked at the rows upon rows of research posters, each filled to its margins with the stories of the students鈥 work. I saw them eagerly explaining their research to their fellow students, to faculty, to anyone who stopped to listen. I saw a giant room of bright, promising junior researchers who soon will go forth and change the world.

I left confident that our future is in great hands 鈥 and I thought, 鈥淭his is what research and innovation at a land-grant university is all about.鈥

Best wishes for a smooth end to the semester.

Karen J.L. Burg
Vice President for Research
Harbor Lights Chair in Biomedical Research