‘Strike early’ to cultivate tomorrow’s researchers

Research at undergraduate level engages students and helps keep the academic pipeline flowing

November 19, 2021
Science research
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Early opportunities to experience the “thrill of success” are vital in generating the academic talent of the future, a Times Higher Education summit has heard.

Georgia Nugent, president of Illinois Wesleyan University, said that the time had long passed since university courses – in the sciences, in particular – would “start with the boring stuff”.

“We used to say, you have to do your calculus [before you] look at a question that interests you,” Professor Nugent told THE’s Teaching Excellence Summit. “About 15 years ago…that paradigm began to flip with trying to engage students from the very beginning.

“Rather than being told, ‘No, do your multiplication tables’…the young person who ultimately wants to cure cancer is given some kind of insight into a real research problem. [We] provide the opportunity to think about research, and consequently begin to identify whether there’s talent for research.”

The opportunity proves popular at her undergraduate-only liberal arts college, where two-thirds of students undertake research – sometimes with striking results. “We have papers published in Nature or Science,” Professor Nugent said.

Katherine Robertson, director of faculty advancement at Duke Kunshan University near Shanghai, said the euphoria of such achievements could be compelling. “We all remember…that thrill of success when we were a graduate or even an undergraduate student, and someone we were working with published a paper.

“It sounds like a small thing, but celebrating publication with students and helping them to feel that thrill is really helpful.”

Professor Robertson advocated “vertically integrated projects” that deployed students in the long-term pursuit of research questions from the outset of their university studies, or even earlier. “A trend in the US these days to engage high school students in research before they even [arrive at university] has been very successful, particularly with women and minority groups.”

Daniel Shek, associate vice-president of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said it was no easy task to cultivate career researchers in the territory’s dynamic economy. “If we go along with the old way, very few PolyU students will study MPhil or PhD programmes…because it is very easy for them to find a professional job [and] get very good pay.”

Professor Shek said that his university had developed special programmes for students who demonstrated an early penchant for research. PolyU’s undergraduate research and innovation scheme enables bachelor’s students to undertake small-scale discovery projects under the supervision of academics with solid publication track records. Undergraduates selected for the programme gain priority admission to a residential college created to “groom” researchers, he said.

Professor Robertson said teaching-focused liberal arts colleges in the US tended to outperform institutions with very high research activity in funnelling students into “good” graduate programmes. “The students enjoy that very close mentorship from faculty, which they don’t necessarily get in a research one university.

“Close mentorship by faculty makes a huge difference [as does] getting students involved in real ongoing projects in the lab. In…a large institution that has 55,000 students, it might be hard to place students into a research project to begin with.

“People in research one institutions [are] very busy writing grants and producing publications. The thought of supervising undergraduates may not be that appealing. We have to reward faculty for being willing to do this. It has to be part of the promotion process.”


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