UH Home to Summer Research for Undergrads

July 21, 2008

Every summer, the best and brightest undergraduate students in the country flock to the University of Houston to bolster their research skills under the watchful eye of the university’s noted faculty.

These same students also engage in dynamic projects that have practical applications in a host of sectors including engineering, national defense, biotechnology, pharmacy, management, human resources, health, medicine and more.

Thanks to summer undergraduate mentored research programs at UH, students can work alongside some of the world’s leading researchers and talented graduate students. This year’s programs are under way and include the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship at UH (SURF-UH), the Rice-Houston Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate at UH (UH-AGEP) and Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REUs). Both AGEP and REUs receive funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

SURF-UH is administered through the Office of Undergraduate Research in the UH Honors College. Each year, it provides stipends of $2,800 to sophomores, juniors and seniors allowing them to participate in 10-week mentored research experiences.

The UH-AGEP mission is to increase the number of minority students receiving doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to encourage them to enter the professoriate. Undergraduates participating in UH-AGEP’s summer mentored research program are eligible for stipends of $4,000 and engage in community functions such as Outreach Day, which brings middle school students to UH to conduct science experiments. AGEP students also have the opportunity of working with both a mentor and a research adviser.

REUs support active research participation by undergraduate students in any of the areas of research funded by NSF. Student stipends and project lengths vary. This year, UH REUs have received more than $1 million in NSF funding. This year’s active REUs include “Sensor Networks and Security Infrastructure” (conducted by the College of Technology), “Civil Infrastructure Engineering” and “Innovations in Nanotechnology” (both conducted by the Cullen College of Engineering) and the “Computational Science and Cybersecurity” (conducted by the Computer Science Department).

Julie Trenor, research assistant professor of engineering, is the principal investigator for the “Innovations in Nanotechnology” REU. She has conducted research on how mentored research programs impact undergraduate students’ academic and career paths.

“We found that after the program, students were more interested in pursuing a graduate degree, specifically a doctorate. We also found that the program positively affected students’ self-efficacy for future scientific research,” Trenor said.

These findings are reflected in the experience of electrical engineering senior Minh Tran. As a current SURF-UH student, he is working on a leaky-wave antenna project with mentor David Jackson, professor of electrical and computer engineering.

“This summer research provides experiences that will help me determine which area within the broad discipline of electrical engineering that I'm interested in the most. This helps me plan for my graduate studies in the future,” Tran said.

Brian McFarlin, assistant professor in exercise and nutrition in UH’s health and human performance department, agreed that undergraduate research experiences influence students’ academic interests. He added that students also gain an edge when entering graduate or pre-professional schools. He has one SURF-UH student assisting him with research related to the physiology of chronic inflammation and inflammatory obesity. He also has an AGEP student assisting him in examining circumstances that mediate the activity of the immune system following exercise.

“For many undergrads, mentored research programs give them a leg up on the competition,” McFarlin said. “When they’re getting into graduate, medical or physical therapy schools, they’ve already been exposed to the research experience. That is very important.”

Undergraduate research also maintains a strong presence on campus throughout the academic year.  The UH Office of Undergraduate Research annually awards the Provost’s Undergraduate Research Scholarship. Juniors and seniors are eligible for this $1,000 scholarship, which supports students conducting mentored research during the fall and spring semesters.  It also offers the Senior Honors Thesis, which provides undergraduates with six hours of credit to conduct a thesis during their senior year. The office also advises students on how to take advantage of other research opportunities on campus and assists students in applying for nationally competitive scholarships.

“Conducting research as an undergraduate enables students to learn firsthand about a particular topic within their field,” said Karen Weber, program director for the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Research also teaches students more intangible skills such as having patience in their work, excelling in a team environment and being a productive self-starter when working independently.”

UH is augmenting its undergraduate research efforts through its Discovery-Based Learning Initiative. The initiative focuses on enriching the learning experience of undergraduates through research-related skills training, engaging students in research opportunities and connecting them to mentors and resources on campus and in the community. Part of this initiative is the recently launched Summer 2008 Discovery Seminar Series, offering workshops and panels focused on a range of topics relevant to research in any academic discipline. During the 2008-2009 academic year and beyond, the Research-Supportive Curriculum Grant program will be initiated to support curricular enhancements in existing courses and development of new courses that incorporate research skills training and practice.

The initiative is the university’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP). As part of its reaffirmation of accreditation by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, UH was required to submit a comprehensive compliance certification document this past fall and develop a QEP centered on enhancing student learning.

For additional details on the Discovery-Based Learning Initiative, visit http://www.uh.edu/discovery/.
To learn more about existing mentored undergraduate research programs, visit the links below: