“Research is the undergirding of science… It is a publish or perish field,” said Dr. Joe Francis, chair of The Master’s University Department of Biological and Physical Sciences.
This well-known fact among the science community is the driving force behind the Annual West Coast Biological Sciences Undergraduate Research Conference (WCBSURC for short) held April 22, 2017. One of the oldest conferences of its kind, its purpose is to “provide a forum for undergraduate researchers to present original data they have generated in the fields of biology and biochemistry” (italics added) while fostering intercollegiate interaction among students and faculty.
In its 42 years, this conference has brought together participants from 182 institutions in 36 states. This year was the eighth time that students from The Master’s University have presented their own research alongside students from other reputable schools like the University of Southern California, Tulane University, Loyola Marymount University, Arizona State University, Vanguard University and many, many more.
“We want to help [our students] develop the ability to present their research at a high level and to network,” said Dr. Matt Ingle, a project supervisor and Master’s U professor specializing in parasitology. “For any student going into graduate school, the way to be successful is to have your network as broad as possible. As a grad student you don’t need to have deep relationships, as your research is your own, but you do need to rely on other research to explore your own questions.”
After traveling over 6 hours to get to Santa Clara University, four student groups defended their answers to the questions they have been researching for over three months. The projects included:
Having done over 26 hours of research on pine bark beetles, Bekah Johnson, who hopes to be an entomologist one day, expressed how “small, intricate and elaborate (the bugs) are. It is so impressive—the Lord’s work in creating these tiny and sometimes large insects. I love studying these intricacies and how they interact in the world around them.” Her project analyzes the arrival of different beetle species—before and after a pine tree has fallen.
Kelly Whitely, who worked under TMU’s resident paleontologist Dr. Matt McLain, explained her project: “(it) combines diagnostics, mystery-solving, and flying reptiles—how much more interesting could it get?” Having thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of researching pathologies on an extinct creature, she was excited to share what she had learned. “…regardless of the amount of research you do,” she said, “there is always the possibility of getting several questions you don’t know the answer to—the thought of not having an answer makes me nervous.”
But that nervousness and feeling of inadequacy is exactly what Dr. Francis hoped would come of this research class and attendance at the conference. “…undergraduate education is still a one-way communication system: teacher to student,” he said. “There are advantages to that but having that research experience shows (to grad schools) a student who is presented with a problem and has to solve it on their own. We (faculty) can’t tell you everything about it because that’s the nature of research; you’re supposed to discover something new.”
However, many undergraduate programs do not have the ability to allow students to conduct research, as they lack the capacity to host them. Scientific research in college requires faculty supervision and many larger schools do not have enough faculty to support the numerous student groups. As most graduate institutions strongly recommend research experience, the lack thereof becomes a detriment when undergraduates begin pursuing graduate studies.
This is not the case at The Master’s University.
With a course specifically set aside for individual or group research supported by a faculty member, TMU students are given the freedom to plan and structure their research. Funded by The Centers of Excellence—a new program dedicated to investing and developing core academic areas—and the Shamrock Foundation, students are given the responsibility to budget their research and compile and complete the study of their choosing. Their formal presentations at WCBSURC add to and challenge the ongoing dialogue in the world of science.
Consistently, the Biological and Physical Sciences Department receives letters from alumni in graduate programs thanking them for their experience at WCBSURC, saying it was the first time they really understood what critical thinking was because their research was so individualized, not based off of a book or an instruction manual. It paved the way for their medical or graduate school career and, ultimately, their future.