Undergraduates as researchers: vital training, or box-ticking?

First-degree students' work on a quantum computing project is an example of their growing role on the front line of discovery

April 26, 2017
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Some things are not in the book: ‘students have to be in the lab getting their hands dirty and becoming part of a team’

With an investment exceeding $1 billion (£781 million), Microsoft has hired hundreds of the world’s top physicists, engineers and programmers to create what many once thought impossible – a quantum computer.

Such machines could operate more than 100,000 times faster than today’s most advanced supercomputer, experts believe, transforming research into everything from pharmaceutical drugs and materials science to artificial intelligence and economics.

But Microsoft’s scientific teams, stationed in eight top universities in the US, Europe and Australia, are some distance from the holy grail of computing and are still grappling with the strange properties of subatomic particles (which can exist in two different states simultaneously) that will drive these game-changing machines.

Amid this international brains trust working on high-end academic research, you might not expect undergraduates, however keen or competent, to be having an impact.

In fact, the opposite is true, insisted David Reilly, chief investigator at the University of Sydney’s Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Engineered Quantum Systems, who leads the Sydney group of Microsoft’s Station Q project.

“Can undergraduates make an immediate impact on our research? Absolutely,” said Professor Reilly, who added that there are a “million opportunities for undergraduates to get involved” with the worldwide quantum computer project.

“Even first-year students, perhaps even high school students, can play a part if they can write code or do basic engineering tasks,” he continued, gesturing towards a group of postdocs, graduate students and undergraduates busy at work in Sydney’s new A$150 million (£88 million) quantum science laboratory, which opened in March 2016.

Bringing students into the research community so early is, however, still a contentious issue. Many scholars dismiss such moves either as a PR stunt to showcase shiny new buildings or the latest educational craze that ignores the fact that research skills are hard won, normally through years of master’s or PhD study. Put more bluntly, letting an 18-year-old fresher loose in a multimillion-dollar laboratory is a recipe for disaster, not to mention a substantial drain on top academics’ limited time, some believe.

Those views overlook myriad benefits both for students and researchers, Professor Reilly told Times Higher Education.

“Involving students in research forces me to explain and clarify what I’m doing – every single time I do this, I learn something,” he said. It is “essential” for senior researchers to do this regularly, he added.

Computer science also benefits more generally by creating a new generation of research-trained graduates ready to jump into more advanced work at master’s or PhD level, Professor Reilly said.

“To train a workforce able to understand this type of technology, you can’t simply have people reading books or even listening to lectures about it,” he added.

“Students have to be in the lab getting their hands dirty with research and becoming part of a team – the old model of doing five years of study, and maybe a literature review, before you get involved is not what we’re about,” he continued.

Sydney is about to step up undergraduate participation in research on a massive scale. From autumn 2018, it will start to offer a new four-year Bachelor of Advanced Studies, in which the final year will be dominated by “advanced coursework” and cross-disciplinary projects focusing on real-world, industry and academic research challenges, meaning many more undergraduates working alongside scholarly researchers.


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Other universities have also made research a key component of their undergraduate curricula, with University College London stating in 2014 that all undergraduates will have the chance to assist with research as part of its 2016-21 education strategy.

However, the push to involve undergraduates in the serious business of research is not without its sceptics, according to a paper by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, published in the journal CBE-Life Sciences Education in April.

Of the 30 graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and academics interviewed for the paper, titled “Why Work with Undergraduate Researchers? Differences in Research Advisors’ Motivations and Outcomes by Career Stage”, many admit that some of their key reasons for working with students are largely “instrumental”, such as the fact that doing so was a job requirement or that it would allow them to tick the box marked “supervision” on their CV when applying for another job.

However, authors Charles Hayward, Sandra Laursen and Heather Thiry found that those who involved undergraduates in research, particularly more experienced staff, were generally enthusiastic about the process and were far more likely to talk about its “intrinsic” benefits, such as the lively contributions that undergraduates make to the lab environment or the improvement in their university’s research culture.

“Working with these bright young people, they ask questions that constantly keep you on your toes,” explains one postdoc, while a faculty member comments how the “fresh and fun perspective” and “enthusiasm” of undergraduates had lifted the spirits of her workplace.

“Even though it takes time to train them, in the big scheme of things, [on] large tasks, the hours they put in are crucial,” explains another interviewee, who says that undergraduates “save me a lot of time and help with general productivity in the lab”.

“We get a lot out of having undergrads – if we didn’t, then we wouldn’t have them,” he concludes.

Of the 30 interviewees, 22 claimed that involving undergraduates in research improved their teaching and mentoring skills, and the same number reported gaining personal rewards, such as making new friends. Sixteen reported that advising undergraduates had deepened their own understanding of scientific concepts, and 10 said that their research group had benefited by training people who continued to work with it as graduate students.

Encouraging more junior faculty to recognise the “intrinsic” benefits of working with undergraduates, rather than seeing it as a “duty”, could be “an easy, effective way to get more potential advisors motivated to work with undergraduates”, the paper recommends.

Many of those interviewed also spoke about the satisfaction that they gained from assisting up-and-coming scientists, while others stated that such mentorship was not only enjoyable but was essential for modern science – a sentiment shared by Professor Reilly.

“I wish graduates could learn these things by watching YouTube videos as it would be so much easier, but they can’t – this stuff needs be hands-on,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Universities build up their youth teams

Reader's comments (1)

There's an additional motivation for involving undergraduates in research: with no PhD funding worth mentioning outside of CDT facilities, it's sometimes the only way to get junior researchers to work with. Undergraduate and masters level projects have formed a core part of several of my recent conference and journal papers. Good for the student (particularly the ones who got to present or co-present our work internationally), good for me.

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