Universities are focusing more on undergraduate research projects

Cal State Fullerton undergraduate students John Stapleton, left, Luis Camacho, Daniel Macias, Rosalie Chavez and Alexandra San Pablo test a project for an upcoming competition in the engineering building.
(Cheryl A. Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

John Derby spent his last summer vacation hobnobbing with famous astronomers as though they were old friends.

Studying the cosmos at the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif. — famed for its explorations of space and search for extraterrestrial life — was a thrilling experience for the Cal Poly Pomona student, the kind usually reserved for a doctoral candidate, not a novice who had yet to enter his senior year in college.

But it is that kind of involvement — doing original research and collaborating with professors and scientists — that more campuses hope to offer undergraduate students such as Derby. As a result of his summer work studying the composition of dust emissions from dying giant red stars, he will make a presentation at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in January.

“Being able to network with top people in the field and possibly get letters of reference to go on to graduate school is tremendous,” said Derby, 23, a senior who switched to research-oriented astrophysics after two years as an aerospace major. He has continued the project under the guidance of Cal Poly Pomona physics and astronomy professor Matthew Povich.


The Pomona campus and universities around the nation are focusing more attention on undergraduate research, spurred by studies showing that such opportunities can keep students engaged in their education and motivated to complete degrees. For faculty members such as Cynthia Crawford, a Cal State San Bernardino psychology professor and drug addiction researcher, “working with students makes everything new all over again” and gives them another means to get out of the classroom and do what they love best.

Several science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, recently launched a five-year plan to increase research participation by students in their freshman and sophomore years. The NSF provides $75 million to $80 million annually for undergraduate research.

“We’ve seen in the past five years a huge increase in the field of course-based research,” said Susan Singer, director of the division of undergraduate research for the NSF. “Faculty are bringing their own research into the classroom and laboratory and having students contribute to doing real research that extends knowledge in the field.”

Nearly all 23 Cal State campuses have an office of undergraduate research to encourage projects, especially targeting low-income and disadvantaged students majoring in the sciences and social sciences. Cal State L.A. recently announced a $3.5-million grant from Los Angeles County to fund a 20,000-square-foot laboratory where undergraduate and graduate students will work in conjunction with start-up companies to conduct bioscience research.

While most University of California campuses focus research dollars on graduate programs, UC Riverside is one that has a sophisticated laboratory and other programs dedicated to undergraduates, who typically must devote more hours to general education requirements than do graduate students.

A consortium of five UC campuses, eight Cal State schools and eight community colleges in Southern California will offer research positions, faculty mentors and scholarships to low-income minorities and women in undergraduate astronomy and physics majors. The Cal-Bridge program is funded by a $600,000 National Science Foundation grant.

Cal Poly Pomona physics major Jessica Maldonado, one of five students selected to inaugurate the program, spends hours peering at images of deep space, looking for faint traces of infrared heat that could be the marker of extraterrestrial civilizations in faraway galaxies. Maldonado began the project two years ago as a freshman during a summer program designed to provide undergraduates with hands-on research experience in astronomy and space science.

She began working from a list of about 3,700 objects first screened by a computer. Like Derby, she too will present her work at the American Astronomical Society and can say, as of now, she’s found no sign of ET.


Maldonado, who grew up in Las Vegas with a mother who worked at a hotel desk and a father in construction, said her family is excited about her unexpected path.

“I was raised with the idea of graduating high school and getting a job,” Maldonado, 21, said. “But I’m trying to set a high bar, to show my little brother in high school that you can do things in college and can make a career in science.”

At Cal State Fullerton, a group of undergraduates are looking into the effects of rainfall on ground saturation and landslides, and studying ways to mitigate damage caused by earthquakes. One test using equipment to compress soil by minute degrees will take two years to complete.

First-year civil engineering student Pratyush Pandey said he was surprised he’s been able to work closely with faculty and “play with the machines” so soon.


“I was expecting questions like, ‘What’s a freshman doing here,’ but they just threw me right in,” said Pandey, 18. “When you have these kinds of experiences doing real research and decide to do a master’s or PhD, you already have a foot in instead of trying to get a foot in.”

The students’ mentor, civil and environmental engineering professor Binod Tiwari, said he has supervised more than 100 research assistants in recent years, about 70 of them undergraduates. Of those, 50 went on to get a higher degree, he said, and most contribute to two or three published articles by the time they leave.

“At the national level, undergraduates are competing with graduate students,” Tiwari said. “Doing this work makes a huge difference in their thinking process and their level of confidence.”

Tiwari and Fullerton mathematics professor Scott Annin recently organized the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research, which drew about 1,500 participants to the Fullerton campus to present projects in such disciplines as chemistry, philosophy and political science.


Patrick Rubalcava, 21, a Whittier College economics major, turned his interest in employment discrimination and comic books into a paper titled

“Holy Discrimination, Batman!” Using sales figures and other data, Rubalcava’s preliminary findings show that it’s more costly for comic book makers to feature female and non-white super heroes. He found that leads to underrepresentation in blockbuster movies that have a huge cultural sway on young people.

The project has “done wonders” for his enthusiasm and knowledge of economics, he said.

It’s important for faculty to show students the passion and excitement of scientific research, said UC Riverside genetics professor Sue Wessler, who has spent years mentoring undergraduate researchers.


Wessler’s project, the Dynamic Genome, operates out of the campus’ Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory, which is dedicated to freshman research. One course developed three years ago is designed to teach students the nuts and bolts of doing research — the concepts and vocabulary of science projects.

Biology major Caleb Hubbard took the class in its first year and now is a senior doing cell and tumor research in an effort aimed at advancing cancer cures. Hubbard, 21, an undergraduate teaching assistant in the lab, started a club based on the course for local K-12 students.

“If we can give these experiences to younger kids,” he said, “they’re even a step ahead of us.”


Twitter: @carlariveralat