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Community College Transfer Students Tackle Undergraduate Research… Both in the Lab and As An Area of Study

September 5, 2019

Author: Sara Brownell

As a student at Estrella Mountain Community College, Cindy Vargas applied to Arizona State University’s National Science Foundation-funded LEAP Scholars program because she loved science and thought she might like doing scientific research, but she wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed.  Less than a year later Cindy, now a LEAP Scholar, is a scientific researcher at ASU and is a co-author on an education research publication in PLOS ONE, which illustrates factors that impact student persistence in undergraduate research. 

ASU’s LEAP Scholars program is a four-semester long scholarship program funded by the National Science Foundation to help community college transfer students get involved in scientific undergraduate research at ASU.  One of the challenges for many community college transfer students is that they often need to work outside of ASU while they attend college, so simply volunteering in a research lab or getting course credit for it is not an option. 

The scholarship from the LEAP Scholars program is intended to fund these students so they can focus full-time on their coursework and research at ASU.  In the LEAP program, students spend the first semester learning about research and then they are paired with a faculty member and work in that faculty member’s research lab for the next three semesters.  In addition, during the remaining three semesters of the program, LEAP scholars take a course where they continue to learn about research and how to maximize experiences at ASU. 

When School of Life Sciences Associate Professor Sara Brownell and post-doctoral scholar Katelyn Cooper thought about how they were going to teach LEAP scholars about research, they realized that they did not want to lecture the students. Instead, the faculty decided to teach students about undergraduate research by giving them an opportunity to do an education study project on undergraduate research. Very meta. 

Along with co-instructor graduate student Logan Gin, the team taught LEAP Scholars about research by having them read published literature on undergraduate research experiences and identify what we know and do not know about undergraduate research. The students identified that most of that literature focused on the benefits of undergraduate research, but few studies had explored the negative experiences of students undertaking undergraduate research.

“We wouldn’t have landed on that research topic without their insight,” said Brownell, “After reading the literature, the students commented on how previous research highlights almost exclusively positive research experiences.  They came to us and said that they had heard from other undergraduates that research can be challenging, mentors can be difficult, and they were perplexed why this wasn’t reflected in the literature.”  So, LEAP Scholars decided to explore why students consider leaving their undergraduate research positions. 

As a class, the 14 LEAP Scholars designed a survey and deployed the survey to 25 different research-intensive institutions.  They ended up surveying 768 students who participated in undergraduate research and found that half of these students had considered leaving their undergraduate research labs.  While some of these students considered leaving because they were more interested in a different topic or they did not enjoy their research tasks, many of surveyed students considered leaving because of negative interactions with people in the lab.  Lack of guidance, negative interactions with a mentor, and a negative lab environment were all factors that contributed to students considering leaving research. 

Published in the journal PLOS ONE with all 14 LEAP Scholars as co-authors, this work is the first of its kind to highlight the importance of the lab environment as a critical factor in students maximizing their experiences in undergraduate research. 

After the publication came out with her name on it, LEAP Scholar Cindy explained how she felt: “I feel extremely honored to have been a part of a group full of brilliant minds collaborating on a study to improve undergraduate research experiences. Being a published author would have never crossed my mind before transferring to a university, but I am grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute towards the scientific community.”

Funding for the program is through the National Science Foundation.  We are grateful to ASU’s Center for Biology and Society for help in administering the grant. 

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