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Undergraduate Research — A Catalyst for Advancing Scientific Knowledge

a photo of a researcher in laboratory doing his undergraduate research

The power of undergraduate research in the development of science is underestimated, according to two leading professors. “Unfair biases lead to the undervaluation of the role of such research in the advancement of knowledge,” David S. Rovnyak and George C. Shields write. In fact, Inside Higher ED states that when people discuss undergraduate research, they tend to focus on the benefits for students and not what contributions the students make to help better the field. Student participation helps “build critical-thinking skills, foster a foundation for the scientific process and create hands-on classroom experiences” is banded about all too often. Although this statement is true, educators say this thought-process excludes the power of undergraduate research as a catalyst for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

A Sad Truth About Undergraduate Research

As in most industries, the scientific community throws its nose up at young upstarts and tends to dismiss their findings—unless they are backed up by a seasoned professional—even if their research is undeniable.

A recent study by Michelle Kovarik—an assistant professor at Trinity College—documented 52 articles by mainly undergraduate institutions between 2009 and 2015 that “made advances throughout analytical chemistry such as in spectroscopy, microfluidics and electrochemistry.” In an August 2016 special edition of Polyhedron—one of science’s leading peer-review publications—, “over 60 articles published were based on undergraduate research, and reported scientific advances throughout inorganic chemistry.”

Real Scientific Results at Undergrad Institutions

Meanwhile, Insider Higher ED surveyed the h-index at Bucknell University last year. “The h-index measures the citations and influence of a scholar’s publications, of chemistry faculty from 22 highly selective undergraduate institutions to determine the impact of their research,” the website notes. Results proved that assistant professors had values between five and 15, associate and full professors increasing to high teens and 20s. Notably, some faculty had higher scores.

In 1993, George Shields had a paper published on hydrogen bonding in the Journal of Computational Chemistry. It had been cited many times since. However, many other undergraduates have had their research published or even won awards for the groundbreaking findings. What’s more, the research these undergraduates have done came about with the use of considerably inferior facilities compared to those that the “big guns” use. They also faced harder and more challenges. And it was difficult for them to get their research published.

a computerized photo of students looking at a laptop beside symbols of fields of research amid the talks about undergraduate research being underestimated

Is there Hope for Those Doing Undergraduate Research?

“Some researchers believed a manuscript was more likely to be declined from high-profile journals without review because of their institution. While speculative, some investigators perceived that if the same manuscript had been submitted under the name of their former Ph.D. laboratory, it would have more likely proceeded to peer review,” Inside Higher ED writes. “Also, researchers at undergraduate institutions have experienced negative feedback on grant applications and manuscripts that [were] not based on the findings or the data, but rather on the involvement of undergraduates. This work can’t be done by undergraduates” is heard all too often.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom for undergraduates doing undergraduate research. If they can get their voice heard at the undergrad stage, they will most likely be set in science for life. Arguably, undergrads have many opportunities at their disposal to help them achieve the almost-impossible.

Other Details on the Matter

“Undergraduate institutions offer the ability to focus on fundamental research at a time when grants and funding are offered with the expectation of specific and highly applied returns on investment.”

What’s more, undergraduate institutions are under less pressure to create intellectual property, set-up startups or partner with the private sector. Although these partnerships do still develop out of productivity and workmanship, there’s no real pressure to do so.

Higher education in the U.S. is undoubtedly well-known for its diversity. Undergraduate colleges are now teaming up with Ph.D.-funded institutions to gain a unique perspective or to toss around ideas with a younger, less inhibited mind. Furthermore, faculty members joining undergraduate facilities can work on projects and conduct their research in less controlled environments, which is better for both staff and their students. It gives them more freedom to try out new things, experiment and get creative with research topics.

Collaboration Is Key Today and Tomorrow

There’s no doubt that the power of undergraduate research in the development of science is underestimated. However, as the science community slowly recognizes the importance of undergraduate research within its own community, it can only get better for everyone concerned. Experts claim that the key for science to move forward is to allow undergraduates to work with research institutions more. Instead of a culture of competition, collaborations are a healthier option for students and teachers alike.

Undergraduates aren’t just the scientists of tomorrow. It has been proven time and time again that they are also the scientists of today.

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