Undergraduate students have been mentored by faculty since 1992.
For more than 20 years, the Center for the Integration of STEM Education and Research (CISER) has offered an authentic research experience for undergraduates at Texas Tech University, starting with the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS).
In 1992, the URS started as the Texas Tech/Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Science Education Program (TTU/HHMI) with professors and researchers acting as mentors for undergraduate students.
Julie Isom started with the program in 1993 as a teacher trainer for the science education outreach program. In 1995, she began working for the center full-time and now is the associate director of research.
“The professional and personal growth of the Undergraduate Research Scholars is an inspiring thing to watch and support even after graduation,” Isom said. “They say ‘once a scholar, always a scholar,' and it is true on so many levels with them.”
Through various funding from Texas Tech and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Isom said CISER has expanded its undergraduate support to students interested in all aspects of STEM research, including research in the colleges of Arts & Sciences, Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, Human Sciences, the Honors College, Rawls College of Business and the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering. The Texas Tech University System faculty research mentors are involved in Texas Tech, the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and The Institute of Environmental and Human Health.
Mentors have the ability to hire and fire undergraduate students based on performance, work ethic, initiative and dedication to a student's research experience, Isom said. The center focuses on early and continuous involvement in long-term research projects, including presenting and publishing their research. The more than 500 scholars have 110 publications in peer reviewed journals, and many of those articles have scholars as the first author.
“Our students at Texas Tech are absolutely amazing, and our university is truly growing leaders through research,” Isom said. “Our faculty mentors really care about the students and can make all the difference in a great undergraduate experience. They go the extra mile allowing undergraduates into their research projects and seeing they are educated, trained and inspired to do good work that has the potential to be presented at professional research meetings and publish their results in peer-reviewed journals.”
CISER students formed the Scholar Service Organization (SSO) in 1997 so students could give back to the community through projects related to research, Isom said. One of these projects is the annual Research Carnival. SSO also gives five research travel awards to three graduate and two undergraduate student researchers who presented at the carnival during the fall semester.
SSO also hosts several other events hosted throughout the year, including the Undergraduate Research Conference, Scholar Research Forum, book club and ethics roundtables and annual scholar retreats.
Each year, the CISER team participates in an annual research retreat at the Texas Tech Junction campus, which Isom said is one of her favorite experiences.
“It's a great time to commune with nature and each other,” she said. “We always have so much fun and learn so much from the faculty who go to the field with us to help us all ‘get out there.'”
CISER also partners with several related programs, including the Clark Scholar Program, NIH Plains Bridges to Baccalaureate Program and the Center for Active Learning and Undergraduate Engagement (CALUE).
“Undergraduate research as an experience has been very dynamic,” Isom said. “The support varies as grant funding waxes and wanes in line with higher education's goals. CISER has been extremely honored to have consistent support and funding by our outstanding Texas Tech system faculty research mentors and administrators. The establishment of CALUE was an important step to include all research, not just STEM, as a vital part of formalized undergraduate engagement for the entire campus. ”
Lou Densmore, director of the TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program at CISER, became involved with CISER as a mentor while it was still part of the TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Research and Science Education program. Now, he is the program director and continues to mentor.
“CISER actually was created by former Texas Tech President Don Haragan to be the home for undergraduate research and science education programs so grants could be written under the auspices of a center,” Densmore said. “I started as a mentor with the TTU/HHMI program and as the program evolved to fall under the umbrella of CISER, I became involved in grant writing and administering the program.”
Densmore and Michael San Francisco, Honors College dean and CISER director, put effort into getting to know each scholar and writing grants to support the program, Isom said. Scholars also awarded W. Brent Lindquist, Arts & Sciences dean, the SSO Extra Kilometer Award for working to help solicit and secure support for the undergraduate research program.
Alumni of the CISER program have gone on to careers in medicine and law, among others, Densmore said, and the experience they receive through working their own research problems cannot be gained in any other way. The activities the programs offer expose students to different backgrounds and cultures. The STEM Education program also offers resources for teachings, including the Traveling Lab program.
“Being a part of CISER has demonstrated that certainly a number of undergraduate students are fully capable of research that might otherwise be considered masters or doctorate level projects,” Densmore said. “It has shown me the value of student ownership and investment in the research endeavor. I have seen tremendous growth in individual students both as researchers or future teachers and as young adults. I consider my TTU/HHMI – CISER experiences to be some of the most rewarding of my career. It also keeps me from getting complacent as some of the best questions that are asked by folks in my own research lab have been from scholars.”
For more information on the CISER undergraduate research program and how to become involved, visit its website.