Teaching Enhancement Unit

Learning Innovation Unit

Teaching Reflections

Involving Undergraduates in Research: the DiaMond UREKA Experience

By Dr. Aoife MacCormac, Biomedical Diagnostics Institute

Introduction

Undergraduate summer research internship programmes are becoming common in universities and research institutes (Hu, Kuh & Gayles, 2007). In these programmes, undergraduate students conduct an independent research project within a research group and also participate in a weekly social and educational programme organised by the host university or institute. 

Such programmes have been operating for many years in the USA. For example, the National Science Foundation currently funds the Research Experience for Undergraduates programme (National Science Foundation, 2009). In the UK, undergraduate research programme such as UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme) at Imperial College (www3.imperial.ac.uk/urop) are well-established and are becoming widespread (Jenkins and Healey, 2007). 

In comparison, such established programmes are relatively new in Ireland. Many universities and research institutes have funded research internships over the years, such as the Hamilton programme at the National Centre for Sensor Research (NCSR), DCU ( www.ncsr.ie/education/index.html). However, these generally offer a limited number of places each year. In 2004, Science Foundation Ireland established the UREKA (Undergraduate Research and Knowledge Award) (Science Foundation Ireland, 2010). Since then, many UREKA sites have been established in Irish universities, including the Diagnostics for Monitoring Disease (DiaMonD) UREKA training site hosted by the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute (BDI) at DCU since April 2006. (www.bdi.ie). 

The benefits of research internship programmes are well documented and include: increased student interest and skills in the subject of their research and associated methodologies; enhanced career preparation; and a greater percentage choosing research as a career (Lopatto, 2007; Russell, Hancock, & McCullough, 2007; Hunter, Laursen, Seymour, & Deantoni, 2007). 

This article outlines the main benefits of the DiaMonD UREKA programme including clarification of career choice, the acquisition of transferable skills and the experience of working in a multi-disciplinary environment. Challenges in running an undergraduate internship site such as this are also discussed. 

Site overview 

The DiaMonD UREKA training site is hosted by the BDI at DCU. The BDI is focused on the development of innovative point-of-care diagnostic devices targeting the early detection of disease. Established in 2005, the BDI is an academic-industrial-clinical partnership that operates at the interface of many sciences and technologies. 

The DiaMonD UREKA site is primarily focused on the science and technology underpinning the development of next generation biosensors for use in biomedical diagnostics. The main aims of the DiaMonD site are:

  • To provide undergraduate students from Ireland and abroad with the opportunity to conduct challenging and meaningful research projects in a state-of-the art, collaborative research environment. 
  • To encourage and support students in pursuing careers in scientific research. 

The DiaMonD UREKA site is managed and administered by members of the BDI Education & Outreach team. From 2006-2008, 12-14 students participated in the site each year, with each student conducting an independent research project on some aspect of biomedical diagnostics. Research projects on offer to the UREKA students reflected the multi-disciplinarity of research within the BDI with topics in Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Engineering, Psychology and Science Education. Undergraduates in their second or third (but not final) year of a degree in science, engineering, allied health, science education or social science from all around the world were encouraged to apply.

From 2006-2010, 64 students were recruited through the DiaMonD UREKA website (see www.bdi.ie/Diamond for application details). The programme ran for 10 weeks during the summer months. Students were engaged in research for 40 hours per week and received a stipend, as well as some assistance with accommodation and travel. The students also participated in a weekly social an d educational programme run by the site administrators. Events included workshops on report writing and referencing; presentation skills; commercialisation of research; career development; industry visits and social events. The career development workshops in particular offered students the opportunity to speak with a panel of staff about different possible career paths. The final event each year was the annual symposium, where all students presented their research to BDI staff in oral and poster form. 

Student on the programme

A student on The DiaMonD UREKA programmme

Benefits

Students were asked to reflect on their time on the DiaMonD UREKA programme in feedback surveys, focus groups and final written reflections. The main findings were as follows:

Confidence in doing research and clarification of career choice

The majority of students were satisfied with their research experience. Also, students felt they had a clearer understanding of how research works in an academic environment. This was supported in their reflections, where it is evident that the students were excited about the research and enjoyed their projects:

“The thrill of discovery in every step of the way made my lab experience very knowledgeable and enjoyable at the same time.” Biotechnology student, 2008.

Following up with the 40 participants in September 2009, the majority had gone on to a PhD or further study in the field of the research internship. For these students, the programme helped to confirm or clarify their career choice:

“In terms of [the programme’s] impact on my career; I am now seriously considering the possibility of doing a PhD when I complete my degree, where previously I had always assumed I would work in industry.” Engineering student, 2007.

Transferable Skills

All 40 participants felt they had acquired a number of transferable skills and personal gains which would further their careers and contribute to their professional development. Communication, IT and organisational skills in particular were mentioned, as well as increased confidence. Before the programme, 31 of the students had not given a poster presentation and 30 had not given an oral presentation outside regular coursework. For these students, the symposium was their first opportunity to present in a professional capacity. This clearly made an impression on the students:

“This was the first presentation I had given that had not been to my peer group, but rather an audience of academics. I also began to develop the skill of taking a three-month project and condensing it into a 10-minute presentation of the most salient points. These are valuable skills, as science communication is an important aspect of any scientist’s career.” Applied Physics student, 2006

Awareness of the multi-disciplinary aspects of research

During the programme the students (who are from different subject backgrounds) were encouraged to achieve a basic understanding of each other’s projects. When the essays were analysed, it emerged that this, coupled with working in a multi-disciplinary institute, had made an impact on the students. In addition, in their post-programme reflections, 24 of the students referred to this aspect. In particular they stated that they had learned the significance of teamwork in a research group, and the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to problem solving in a field such as biomedical diagnostics:

“The fact that we all came from such diverse backgrounds in terms of our area of study reemphasised to me how necessary it is to have an inter-disciplinary team working together if you want to be on the cutting edge of research and development.” Biomedical Engineering student, 2008.

“Each student has their own skill set, their own field of study and their own individual project and it is hard not to soak up a lot of different information, as well as to gain an appreciation for the great coming together of knowledge that is necessary for even the simplest of medical devices.” Psychology Student, 2008.

Challenges 

The impact of the DiaMonD UREKA site for the first three years on the students, mentors and institute discussed above shows clear benefits for each of these. However, running of the programme has identified key issues that must be considered: 

  1. Students who apply to the site are generally already considering undertaking further study at MSc or PhD level. Although the programme is still helpful in confirming these students’ career choices and preparing them for the future, it would have a greater impact to specifically target students who are not considering graduate studies. 

  2. While the Principal Investigators and mentors felt that having the student in the lab was beneficial, a significant time commitment is needed on their part. This must be considered before participating in the programme as a mentor.

  3. There is a need for careful and ongoing mentoring of students and mentors by the course coordinator and staff to ensure that they are fully engaged and that problems encountered are quickly resolved.

  4. It is beneficial for the students, who are from different backgrounds, to achieve a basic understanding of each other’s projects. This can be successfully achieved through the weekly updates. 

  5. The use of focus groups and reflections for evaluation were found to be successful and allowed the evaluator to gain an accurate insight into the students’ expectations before and after the programme. These supplied us with more meaningful and in-depth data than with the use of questionnaires alone.

  6. Long-term evaluation: As the students finish their undergraduate degrees, it is essential that contact is maintained to establish the impact of the programme in the future. Social networking sites are a useful tool for following up with students. 

The data so far indicates that the majority of students who participate in undergraduate internship programs continue to graduate study in a related field. They can also help students confirm or clarify their career choice and is also valuable for participants who realise they do not wish to continue in this field. All students should be strongly encouraged to apply to these programs or other external research opportunities during their undergraduate degree. Funding for such programmes has currently been reduced; however, initiatives such as the DiaMonD UREKA are important in encouraging talented graduates to pursue future research, which is vital for the development of Ireland’s smart economy. This is also in line with the Irish Government’s intention to double the number of Ph.D. graduates by 2013 (Forfas Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation, 2009).

References

Forfas Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation. 2009. The Role of PhDs in the Smart Economy. Available from: <www.sciencecouncil.ie/media/ asc091215_role_of_phds.pdf> [Accessed 1 October 2010].
Hu, S., Kuh, G., & Gayles, J.G. 2007. Engaging Undergraduate Students in Research Activities: Are Research Universities Doing a Better Job? Innovative Higher Education, 32, pp.167– 177.
Hunter, A., Laursen, S., Seymour, E., & Deantoni, T. 2007. Becoming a Scientist: The Role of Undergraduate Research in Students’ Cognitive, Personal, and Professional Development, Science Education, 91, pp. 36-74.
Jenkins, A. & Healey, M. 2007. UK based Undergraduate Research Programmes. Available from: <www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/sociology/rsw/undergrad/cetl/ugresearch/uk_ug_research_progs_july_2007.doc> [Accessed 1 October 2010].
Lopatto, D. 2007. Undergraduate Research Experiences Support Science Career Decisions and Active Learning, Cell Biology Education - Life Sciences Education, 6, pp. 297306.
National Science Foundation. 2009. Research Experiences for Undergraduates. Available from: <www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5517 &org=NSF>[Accessed 1 October 2010].
Russell, S., Hancock, M., & McCullough, J. 2007. Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experiences, Science, 316 (549). Science Foundation Ireland. 2009. Currently funded UREKA sites. Available from: <www.sfi.ie/content/ content.asp?section_id=565&language_id=1> [Accessed 1 October 2010].


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