By Julie Engebretson
Two innovative new Arts & Sciences programs are providing Baylor students with something not all Carnegie-ranked research universities can offer — the opportunity for undergraduates to engage in scientific research alongside distinguished research faculty.
“I think research is the perfect tool to teach actual science — what science is — and it’s much more important than what you might learn in a classroom lecture,” said Dr. Dwayne Simmons, chair and professor of biology and the Cornelia Marschall Smith Endowed Professor of Biology. “You also get the student involved in not only being able to understand a process, but also to extend that process and to make discoveries.”
Simmons himself enjoyed the uncommon opportunity to do laboratory research as an undergraduate at Pepperdine University during the summers between academic years. That experience got him “hooked” on the research process.
“It wasn’t necessarily my professor’s research topics, but rather, figuring out questions to ask that you can get answers to –– figuring out mechanisms and how something actually works in nature,” he said. “It really affirmed my desire to go to graduate school to continue in research.”
When he came to Baylor in 2016 as the new chair of the biology department, Simmons was keen on creating a formal undergraduate research program that would immerse students in the work and the culture of a given laboratory, and provide the opportunity for students to contribute materially to real, meaningful research. So, with the help of Dr. Richard Sanker, director of prehealth science programs, and the prehealth associate director, Dr. Rizalia Klausmeyer, Simmons drew up a blueprint for a new program he would direct called the Baylor Transdisciplinary Research Undergraduate Experience –– B-TRUE, for short.
Simmons had considerable experience launching and directing similar programs at Pepperdine University, Washington University-St. Louis and UCLA, but there would be one big difference this time. At Baylor, Simmons wanted to weave in an intentional focus on transdisciplinary research, emphasizing how researchers from different scientific disciplines must work together to solve complex problems.
Since increasing student access to research opportunities is a major goal of the Baylor College of Arts & Sciences, Arts & Sciences dean Dr. Lee Nordt gave Simmons both moral and financial support for B-TRUE. In addition, six science departments from the College –– physics, geosciences, chemistry and biochemistry, psychology and neuroscience, biology and environmental science –– each agreed to provide additional funding.
This generous support allowed B-TRUE to offer a $4,000 living stipend to each of 12 undergraduate students during the program’s inaugural run in the summer of 2017. Students applied and were accepted based on academic achievement, demonstrated leadership and a commitment to scientific research.
B-TRUE targets sophomores who have just completed their freshmen introductory courses, as well as new juniors who are just getting into what Simmons calls “meatier” coursework. He and Klausmeyer make every effort to recruit a diverse cohort.
Students accepted into B-TRUE are paired with a principal investigator (a Baylor faculty member) heading one of six participating labs. After receiving a thorough primer in lab safety and procedures, the students then help run experiments, pose and test hypotheses, assemble and test cutting-edge equipment and gather and analyze data. At every step, they are able to witness the value of the transdisciplinary approach to research.
Each summer’s B-TRUE session employs a common organizing theme for student research in the lab. In 2017, that theme was “Stress and Stressors.”
“Working with 40 mice, I was trying to evaluate how much the known positive effects of exercise and an enriched environment would counteract the effects of stress in the brain,” said David Carpenter, a senior double-majoring in neuroscience and biology and a member of the inaugural B-TRUE cohort.
“Understanding the value of transdisciplinary research was the most important aspect of this experience,” Carpenter said. “All of the scientific disciplines are connected, and many utilize multiple disciplines. The overlap is oftentimes where the cutting edge research happens, and it’s where the boundaries of science are pushed in new and exciting ways.”
In addition to bringing undergraduate students into the various participating labs, a significant aim of B-TRUE is to help students comprehend and interpret scientific literature. To that end, students in the program meet weekly throughout the 10 weeks for “journal club.”
“In the journal club, the students pick a paper based on research that happened in the lab in which they’re working,” Simmons said. “The point is that they must grapple with the scientific paper and understand it well enough to present it to a room full of people [in journal club] who may be very intelligent, but have no clue what is going on in other laboratories. That was really important for me.”
Klausmeyer, who serves as program coordinator for B-TRUE, spent a great deal of time with the summer 2017 cohort both inside and outside the classroom –– running journal club meetings and also organizing hikes through Cameron Park, kayaking excursions on the Brazos River and rock climbing at the McLane Student Life Center.
Science Research Fellows
After Klausmeyer finished her summer helping get the B-TRUE program launched, she stepped into another first-time role –– as the inaugural director of Baylor’s new Science Research Fellows (SRF) program. SRF is a highly selective interdisciplinary program that allows students to earn a bachelor of science degree with increased opportunities for research. It’s open to high-achieving high school seniors, who must apply and be accepted. SRF immerses undergraduates in laboratory research within their favorite disciplines early — starting with the sophomore year.
“One of the goals in Pro Futuris [the University’s strategic vision] is to have students more engaged in science research, and Science Research Fellows is one of the few programs in the nation –– possibly the only one –– that offers an undergraduate degree in science that focuses completely on research,” Klausmeyer said. “We’re preparing a group of students, at the undergraduate level, for a research career.”
Science Research Fellows are expected to join a research lab at the start of their sophomore year, receiving individualized mentorship and guidance along the way.
“During the freshman year, the Fellows take a class where they see all the research that is being done at Baylor in every science discipline,” Klausmeyer said. “As soon as their sophomore year begins, they’re working in a lab of their choice that interests them. I take the student to the professor running that lab so that everyone is very clear about what is expected of the student, what is expected of the professor and my role in monitoring the student’s progress. The students must then stay in that lab for a minimum of two years to graduate as a Science Research Fellow.”
As they enter their senior year, Science Research Fellows have the option to either stay on in their lab or mentor first-year Fellows. But Klausmeyer says the longer students stay in their lab, the better the chances are of completing a publication as an undergraduate.
For freshman SRF major Pradeep Tatineni, a passion for scientific research was sparked quite early in life.
“In elementary and middle school I enjoyed any projects that involved researching and presenting a particular topic,” he said. “I looked at research as a way to think in a critical way and express my own thoughts to the world. Ever since I conducted my first research project during my freshman year [of high school] on malaria for an nationwide science fair, I knew research would play a big part in my future.”
Like B-TRUE, Klausmeyer said the Science Research Fellows program helps break down some of the cultural barriers to transdisciplinary research in the scientific community. As a result, Tatineni and his SRF colleagues witnessed the wide assortment of research taking place on the Baylor campus — from studying the earwax of whales as a record of environmental change to investigating the way that mosquitoes find their host and why they choose certain hosts over others.
“I see myself working in Dr. [Michael] Scullin’s sleep lab,” Tatineni said. “Right now he is researching the effects of listening to music while sleeping on a person’s ability to retain what they learned during the day.”
As the Science Research Fellows program seeks to attract even more high school students with outstanding test scores and high GPAs, Klausmeyer said the College of Arts & Sciences will seek additional funding to increase the number of SRF students receiving financial support.
“In this first year, we lost a couple of students we accepted because they were offered better financial packages elsewhere. But more funding will come later,” Klausmeyer said. “We are making sure the program is well-established and running smoothly. Then, we will work on fundraising in a more formal capacity.”