Dream Lab: Undergraduate research transforms students into scientists

Authentic research experiences help undergraduate students explore science as a lifelong pursuit. The Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology launched the Undergraduate Research Fellowship program in 2016 with the aim of placing students in labs early in their careers. The program has placed more than 30 students in 20 different labs on campus. More than 20 students applied for a fellowship position in 2018, but funding was available for only six students. To help with this demand, the department will launch MIP 401, a course-based experience that will allow students to take a scientific project from hypothesis to data analysis in a dedicated lab space.

The program, lab space, and funding amount to a strategic investment with the potential to transform students’ lives far beyond the classroom. In the short term, students gain an understanding of the research process. They learn to survey and evaluate scientific literature, to manage and analyze data, to overcome obstacles, to interpret data, and to write and speak about their findings. In the long term, their identities and career paths may be transformed. Students who view themselves as scientists are more likely to graduate, maintain high grade point averages, and be admitted to graduate school, with the greatest impacts on first-generation and underrepresented minority students.

Demand for undergraduate research positions currently outweighs the supply. A Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology survey showed that of 170 students who responded, 108 had gotten into research or medical experiences, but 60 still were looking for their dream lab.

Read on for portraits of three student researchers.

white male student in lab coat works in lab

MAX DRUMMOND – AKKINA AND DEAN LABS

Max Drummond decided to attend CSU after he researched faculty and internships in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. On his first day on campus, he went to Ram Welcome and had an auspicious meeting with Professor Erica Suchman, MIP associate department head and a University Distinguished Teaching Scholar. Suchman made a few calls and lined up a research position for him on the spot.

Drummond first worked with Professor Ramesh Akkina and now conducts research on a new vaccine model and rotavirus in the lab of Professor Gregg Dean. He reports that MIP 150, Introduction to Research Methods, was key to moving forward in the research realm.

“You learn all about basic research and do a mock project that is comparable to what you’d do in a lab,” Drummond said. “That was a good experience, to familiarize myself with the techniques and tools in research and to make me feel more comfortable being in a lab.”

He learned a lot, at first, by asking questions. He tried to understand what people were doing. Then, he learned the structure or hierarchy of the lab, and saw how everyone from the principal investigator to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers had research projects.

One of the things that he said he’s been most surprised about is how social the research realm is.

“I pictured that you’d go in a lab, you’d do your experiments, keep that to yourself, and you’d go tell your boss what your results were,” he said. “But in reality, you have a lab meeting every week, you’re constantly talking to other people who work in the lab, they’re your friends, you see them all the time, and you’re working together.”

young white woman on stool with university campus in background

KIRTY KRIEGER – PERERA LAB

“Most undergraduates start out washing dishes and making media, but I was thrown straight into a research project of my own,” says Kirty Krieger, who worked in the lab of Rushika Perera, an assistant professor in virology. “This opportunity taught me how to hypothesize and really helped me grow as a scientist. I made plenty of mistakes, but Dr. Perera kept me on track and let me take the lead on many aspects of my project.”

Krieger found a true feeling of community through research. She helped to develop the MIP Mentor program and worked as a teacher’s assistant in the MIP Freshman Seminar, where she taught classes and advised students during their first year of college.

“I remember going into Dr. Perera’s lab and feeling like part of a family,” Krieger says. “I hope the students I mentored also took away a sense of confidence about being in the right place at CSU and a feeling of community within the department.”

Krieger recently graduated from CSU and now trains staff and volunteers in the Perera Lab. She is applying to graduate schools and hopes to eventually land a role as an assistant professor at a college where she can conduct research and teach.

male student with glasses and blue button-up shirt stands underneath pine trees

JOSEPH GALLEGOS – TELLING LAB

In 2016, freshman Joseph Gallegos was named an Undergraduate Research Fellow. He studied chronic wasting disease and other prion diseases in the Telling Lab and presented his research at scientific meetings. The experience was “invaluable.”

“It’s hard to make it tangible, learning the ins and outs of how research is conducted at the highest level,” Gallegos explained. “Being part of the program and this department has given me the opportunity to experience what it means to be a research scientist.”

As a freshman, Gallegos was thinking about going to graduate school and maybe even becoming a professor. Three years later, he considers himself a scientist. He graduated from CSU in December 2018 and plans to pursue a doctoral degree in neuroscience.

Photography by Kellen Bakovich