Undergrad research program offers new opportunities


CORVALLIS - A summer job is still a routine part of college - but this year, 50 talented undergraduate students at Oregon State University will be working in research programs instead of waiting tables.

A new "Research Experience for Undergraduates" program at OSU hopes to improve student retention, give faculty some badly needed support and provide undergrads with a major boost towards graduate school or their future careers.

And the money's pretty good, too - each student will earn $2,300 for their summer's work, provided mostly by OSU's Research Office.

"We're finding that internships and working experiences such as this help students build a relationship with faculty mentors, give them someone they can really get to know and discuss their interests with," said George Keller, OSU vice provost for research.

"The students also can get away from books and be caught up in the enthusiasm of doing real-world research," he said. "The kids get very excited and it's a tremendous learning experience."

Private industry increasingly demands students with this type of practical experience, and it's also become almost a prerequisite to get into good graduate programs - grades alone, Keller said, often aren't enough.

Freshmen, sophomores and juniors are all involved in the program, Keller said, and the response from faculty was encouraging. More than 150 researchers sought to participate and the program was limited only by available funding.

A typical participant is Jessica Jacks, an undergraduate student from Madras majoring in nutrition science. She's spending eight weeks helping to recruit, screen and test human subjects participating in a study of hormones, physical activity and their relationship to coronary heart disease in postmenopausal women.

"This particular research position will place me in a clinical environment working with people," Jacks said. "I'm interested in going to medical school, but working with this research project will help me make decisions as to whether medical school or graduate school is right for me."

Joe Dunn, a sophomore from Lake Oswego majoring in chemical engineering, also said the summer's work may help him to clarify plans.

"As I come to the end of my sophomore year I must start to make some decisions, including where I would like to work and in what industry," Dunn said. "The easiest way to do this is to work one-on-one with an OSU professor."

Towards that goal, Dunn will collaborate with Willie Rochefort, an associate professor of chemical engineering, and two other OSU students to develop waste minimization modules for two of Oregon's largest industries, microelectronics and pulp and paper. The results of this work will actually be used in educating other undergraduate students.

Jessica Strowbridge, a sophomore from Corvallis, was a National Merit Scholar at Corvallis High School a little more than a year ago. Now she will help Nancy Kerkvliet, an OSU toxicologist, study the cellular mechanisms involved in the toxic compound dioxin suppressing the immune system.

And an OSU sophomore in chemical engineering will help with a study of corrosion on Oregon's coastal bridges, perfecting the new techniques of "cathodic protection" to extend their lifespan.

"Many people don't realize how much the research that goes on at OSU can affect the quality of education that the university is able to provide," Keller said. "It helps to keep the faculty at the forefront of their fields, but in programs like this it can also help the students learn about research and discovery by doing it."