Many Wayne State undergraduates are involved in research. (Photo courtesy of Wayne State University).

By Kathy Barks Hoffman

In addition to wearing their college hoodies, blue jeans and flip flops, students attending Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University are being encouraged to spend part of their undergraduate years in a white lab coat.

All three of the schools are part of Michigan’s University Research Corridor (URC), and all offer students a chance to participate in research projects as soon as they step on campus. The programs match students with researchers and give them a chance not only to work on university research, but also to attend professional meetings and present research findings. The result is a pool of graduates with research experience who bring a broader, more cutting-edge set of skills that many employers want.

“We know that students who do research have more refined analytical skills,” says Korine Wawrzynski, Michigan State undergraduate research director. “You have experience seeing a project through from A to Z.”

For many students, the opportunity to be involved in research projects solving medical, technical and other challenges while improving the lives of others has been life-changing.

That was the case for Richard Starbuck, who at 27 was still working on an associate’s degree when he applied for and won a 10-week summer research fellowship for community college students at the University of Michigan. He’s now attending classes at U-M and plans to get a doctoral degree in engineering so he can continue the work he’s begun.

“Seeing other community college students getting involved in U-M research opened my eyes to new possibilities  and encouraged me to reach a little further with my aspirations,” Starbuck says. “Everything about (the research program) … has been beneficial, and I’m eternally grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me.”

Craig Pearson worked on a project to help treat an inherited form of blindness as one of his first undergraduate research assignments at Michigan State. By the time he graduated, he’d been involved in a number of research projects and was the student managing editor for ReCUR, the Red Cedar Undergraduate Research Journal.

Now a Marshall Scholar pursuing his doctoral degree in clinical neurosciences at the University of Cambridge in England, Pearson says doing research in any field, even if it’s not an undergraduate’s major area of study, is beneficial.

“if you take a chance and reach for something outside your comfort zone, you may be surprised,” he says.

Michigan State offers undergraduate research opportunities at all 14 of its colleges, and Wawrzynski estimates that around 10,000 undergraduate students are involved in research projects each year. Some work as volunteers, while others gain class credit and some are paid for the time they put in.

At Wayne State University and U-M, undergraduate research is under the umbrella of each school’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). The program gives students in the hard sciences, social sciences, performing arts and humanities the chance to do research with and be mentored by full-time faculty who are leaders in their fields. Such hands-on research experience can make it easier for them to get a job when they graduate or better prepare them for graduate school.

“A student should first decide on an area of interest, and also have a solid idea on how much time they are willing to commit to a laboratory,” the WSU Department of Psychology website advises undergraduates. “Ten or more hours per week is a typical commitment, and many labs will require a time commitment of a semester or longer.”

But the department also encourages students to go after research opportunities.

“There is no need to be shy about this: keep in mind that most (if not all) of our faculty were once undergraduate research assistants themselves!” the website says.

Ian Waters got involved in research his freshman year at U-M and appreciates the chance it gave him to do biomedical research right away. The university currently has more than 1,450 students involved in the undergraduate research program.

“UROP gave me access to a huge number of labs … and resources that allowed me to break into research and become a reliable and respected member of a lab,” says Waters, now working on a doctoral degree in cellular and molecular medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Wawrzynski says that doing undergraduate research benefits not only students who plan to go on to graduate school but also those looking for a job once they get an undergraduate degree.

“They have a better idea of what they want to do when they leave MSU. They are better with communicating … and better organizers. They have to learn to work independently and also with a team of people,” she says.

Doing undergraduate research “makes you a more competitive (job) candidate,” she adds. “There are so many benefits.”