46- Celebrating Undergraduate Research at Utah State University

February 23, 2021 Utah State University Office of Research Episode 46
46- Celebrating Undergraduate Research at Utah State University
Show Notes Transcript

Established in 1975, USU’s undergraduate research program is one of the oldest in the nation. You will also learn about the history and future of undergraduate research from, Alexa Sand, associate vice president for research at Utah State. Wyatt also interviews two students with their mentors to understand how undergraduate research has benefitted them. Kelsey Bradshaw mentored by Dr. Elizabeth Vargis, and Cedric Mannie mentored by Dr. Breanne Litts.  

Alexa Sand: [00:00:00] And I think in general, undergraduate students who participate in undergraduate research, um, walk away from the experience with some ownership and a sense of. Confidence and belief in themselves that they might not otherwise have developed just through coursework in the classroom 

Wyatt: [00:00:20] today, you'll hear the voices of a couple of USU students, their mentors, and 

Alexa Sand: [00:00:26] I'm Dr.

Alexis sand. I am an associate vice president for research at Utah state university. And I'm a professor of art history in the college of art and design. 

Wyatt: [00:00:36] Hello. My name is Wyatt and you are listening to a special episode of instead a podcast from Utah state university's office of research. This episode is a celebration of Utah state university being announced as a recipient of the 2020 award for undergraduate research accomplishments from the council for undergraduate research.

This award recognizes USU as a national leader in undergraduate programs for research and creative inquiry. We're celebrating by bringing you a couple stories of USU students participating in research to get this episode started. Here's Dr. Sande talking about the importance of this award. 

Alexa Sand: [00:01:16] Aura is an acronym for the award for undergraduate research accomplishments, and it recognizes campus wide effort at a university to institutionalize and to really advance the case for undergraduate research.

It's important to be recognized. USU has long been a leader in this area in 1975. When we started offering students the, um, undergraduate research and creative opportunities grants, we were only the second. University in the country to sort of jump on the bandwagon of funding, undergraduate research in that way.

So we've been committed to innovative practices and undergraduate research for 45 plus years in the early two thousands. Uh, Dr. Kincaid really started to transform what we were doing and. Built in some structures to support mentors, better to, to institutionalize a variety of different practices and to give students more opportunities to share what they were doing with the public.

So I think that's part of why we won this award. Are those efforts. That began in the early two thousands under Dr. Kincade, the efforts continued under Dr. Scott Bates in the mid 2000 tens. And then I took on the mantle of leadership in 2018. But really honestly, I think the award comes from the efforts of faculty and students.

Our amazing USU faculty who just jumped in full on to undergraduate research, mentoring everybody from senior faculty, like Dr. David peak and physics down to the newest faculty members who come to me every fall and say, you know, how can I do this? And then on the other side, of course we have the students and.

I mean, I get choked up sometimes over how amazing these students are, how passionate they are about their research, how connected they are to their communities. Yeah. 

Wyatt: [00:03:21] Yeah. You've selected a couple of mentor and student, um, combinations for me to talk to and hear their stories. Why did you choose Dr. Varghese and her student? Kelsey Bradshaw. 

Alexa Sand: [00:03:31] Elizabeth Varghese is just amazing. She stands out as somebody who. It's really honest with her students about what it means to come into engineering as a person of color, as a woman, as someone who's kind of fighting that uphill battle. So I just have. A lot of admiration for her as, as a researcher, but also as a mentor and a role model for students, Kelsey is an amazing student, but she's also such a top drawer scientist.

Like when she explains what she's doing this incredibly complex. Um, biological engineering of, I tissues somehow as a lay person. You think you understand it? Like you're totally there with her. She has a great science communicator. She also has a fantastic undergraduate research story. Kelsey actually started her undergraduate research career and found she just wasn't getting the opportunities that she wanted.

Um, and so she transferred to USU because she had heard that we have these great opportunities. And her first experience was not like all fun and games. She had a lot of challenges and I think she's very honest about that. And I think that's another thing that sort of idea of getting past the obstacles, which are always going to be there no matter who you are.

Wyatt: [00:05:00] You'll be hearing more from Dr. Alexis and later in the episode, but here's my conversation with Kelsey Bradshaw and her mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Varghese. Kelsey. Tell me, um, about how you got involved with undergraduate research. 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:05:16] Um, I transferred to Utah state after two and a half years at BYU. And my first semester here, I took the very first biological engineering class, which is actually taught by professor Varghese. 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:05:31]And the whole  class was about like what you can get into if you're doing biological engineering and the types of career fields. And then she talked a lot about research and the different labs on campus and her seeing the coolest, I went to her lab meeting.

And somebody was like, I need this thing done. Um, and if anyone knows how to do it, you know, just talk to me later. And I was like, I could do that. And so I went and talked to her and I was like, Hey, I want to help you with your research. And she gave me something to do. And I've been in the lab ever since 

Wyatt: [00:06:04] Dr. Varghese, what did you need done? And was she able to do it?

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:06:10] Um, so was actually my graduate student who asked for help and she. Had these particles that were floating and being rotated in the system so that we could mimic gravity on or mimic space on earth. And so the loss of gravity on earth and my graduate student needed help tracking these particles.

And she did not want to have to do that with her eyeballs. She wanted to develop a computer program that could automatically count them. And that's not our expertise. We nobody in our lab deals with them. Living cells. And so we're not usually doing things with computational coding and modeling and things like that.

And I didn't know much about Kelsey, but she said she could do it. And so I believed her and she did do it. She worked on it and figured it out.

Wyatt: [00:06:58] Dr. Varghese, can you tell me. What the goal of your lab is? 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:07:04] Yeah, so we are interested in studying why diseases occur and we don't want to do that and people, and we don't want to do that in animals.

And so what we do is we grow the same cells that you have in your body. We grow them outside and we. Basically try to replicate what happens during diseases. And so whether that's some sort of chemical that gets added, whether that's some sort of mechanical stress and physical stress, so poking and being stretched out too far, those are things that might happen that are either precursors that happens before disease or as a result of the disease.

And so what we try to do is. Replicate that in the labs, but then try to figure out why that's happening or how we can prevent it from happening. 

Wyatt: [00:07:52] And what does that have to do with space? 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:07:56] So, one of the things that happens in space is that, uh, astronauts end up losing a lot of their muscle mass. And we are trying to figure out if that's a result of them floating around.

So not having the effects of gravity like we have on earth or, and or if that's the effects of space radiation, because we're not shielded by the Earth's atmosphere. And so what we were trying to do is like, if it has, if you have radiation, if you are in micro gravity, what do your, what. Do your muscle cells look like, and then once we know that, could we put in some extra vitamins or do we need to exercise more before going into space?

So those are the kinds of outcomes that we are interested in, in determining just based on our, our laboratory models. And so my graduate student, Laurie Caldwell's project. Developed a device that we could use to mimic both of those conditions. So the microgravity of space and the effects of radiation, but then we would grow muscle cells within that device.

And that's what Kelsey tried. 

Wyatt: [00:08:55] Yeah. Kelsey, what did you figure out? Tell me about what the setup was and the skills you use to do it. 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:09:02] Yeah. So it'd be what you, I take in a class that had taught us the basics of one programming language. Um, but in a different programming language, I found documentation about how to track particles.

So it's basically like. Somebody has already done it. And they created this package. That includes all the stuff you need to do it yourself. So I found that online and I was like, well, I guess in, somebody's already done it. I should just use the tools that they created. And I was taking . At USU. And so I was learning how to use that program language already.

And I was like, all the tools are here. I got this, I can figure it out. I had Laura, who was the grad student. She took a video with one of the cameras in the lab of the cells. And then I imported that video onto my laptop and just try to use the packages and tools that were already. Part of the language to track the particles.

And when I got here, I had taken exactly zero biology classes. And so I was like, so what are we doing? And she tried to explain it. And my, by Dan, she was just like, they're just particles. And they just move around. And I was like, okay. And that I just tracked the particles. So I was definitely not involved in the rest of that  project.

Wyatt: [00:10:16] So Kelsey, are you interested more in computer science and that side of engineering or you definitely into the biological engineering stuff with Dr. Parky's? 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:10:28] How it's a little bit of both. I think I'm really interested in the processes and how. A process works, how you get from step a to step B and all the way to the end product.

Um, and then I'm interested in how can I make the computer do that, but I am not super into like technical. Chemical reactions and like the nitty gritty part of biology. I kind of just like the more overarching process type thing where I can simulate on my computer, how to get from step a, to step B, but not exactly like, and then this thing reacts with this other thing to make this thing happen.

So I just liked the more overarching stuff that I can do on my own. 

Wyatt: [00:11:10] Yeah. Dr. Varghese, what was it like to have, um, an undergrad come in and solve this big problem that you and your grad student were facing of having to count to a whole bunch of particles floating around? 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:11:23] Well, it was it when things like that happen, I'm always surprised.

And then I remind myself that I shouldn't be surprised because it's happened to me plenty of times with undergraduate researchers in my lab. The thing about Kelsey is she. Didn't really even talk to me. She went straight to Lori and said, I can solve that problem for you. And so she had this innate sense of.

Confidence that she could just do it without having Kelsey's coding. We wouldn't have been able to say that the particles, which are muscle cells growing on scaffolds, which again is part of our project to mimic what happens to astronauts. When they're in space, we wouldn't have been able to say definitively.

Yeah, the cells are under microgravity. The cells are experiencing different gravity than on earth without Kelsey's program. 

Wyatt: [00:12:11] What has the value of participating in this undergraduate research for you? Ben? What have you gotten out of it? 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:12:20] Um, I had always considered graduate school as a possibility, but I never really knew if I wanted to do it mostly because I never really had any experiences that I could say, this is probably something like what I would be doing at grad school, because, and I've not always been the type of person that loves school.

Um, and I've never been super good at school. And so I was like, I don't know if I want to keep going. With more years, you know, especially after my undergrad had already taken me five and a half years, you know, but after doing research in the lab, I've been like, okay, this is what I like. This is what school was all about.

This is why I'm getting an education. So I can discover new things and do new research. And so it really helped me to realize, you know, school is worth it. And I think grad school would also be worth it because of. The research that I've been able to be a part of. 

Wyatt: [00:13:14] Yeah. Yeah. And how has, um, participating in undergraduate research connected you to other people?

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:13:21] Uh, as a transfer student, I showed up and didn't know anyone. And I had, I had one connection. I had one friend that went here and that was it. And so I think it was the basis of almost all of my friendships that I have now here at USU was the first place I met people who are interested in the same thing I was interested in.

And so it just connected me with a lot of students and also being able to have a connection with professor arguer. So I realized that professors aren't actually that scary and you can talk to them and they have interests as well. And so that was good to be able to connect with a professor as well.


Wyatt: [00:13:59] Yeah. Dr. Varghese, I was also a transfer student like Kelsey. I came to USU and I'd already done two years of school and I also didn't love school and I just. Wanting to power through in any. And like, I didn't even understand what undergraduate research was, even though I worked for the research office part-time I just wanted to be done with school.

Right. Yeah. Um, what advice do you have for people who are just like, trying to plow through and yeah. About how would you pitch undergraduate, right. 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:14:28] Yeah. Um, so yeah, to give people, the people to undergraduate research pitch, I try to. Tell them, this is an opportunity to try something new and to see how it feels.

You may hate it. You may not know anything about it, but if you find the time and if you have that, even an inkling of passion desire. Want curiosity. It's a nice thing to take advantage of. And for most of the professors, we are totally willing and open to have undergraduates in our lab or in our research groups.

They can come to our meetings, they can talk to other undergraduate researchers, other graduate students, and that's just the first step. And so even at that point, you're not. That committed, but maybe what you find is, Oh, it's a really good group. And they're all really funny. Or I really like what they're talking about or there's a problem that I think I can fix within the group.

And so that's the pitch that I give to students when I teach the 1000 class, which is a freshman level course or a transfer student course that everybody has to take. And I pitched that as you don't have to be. Into research your whole life. You don't have to become a researcher like, like I am, but this is just an opportunity that you might as well take advantage of while you're here as an undergraduate student.

Wyatt: [00:15:48]  Yeah. What would you say to people who are worried about taking a spot away from others? It's like, Oh, that's not for me. I don't want to take it if I'm only half. Sure. There's a lot of like super jazzed people been involved. 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:16:02] I, I mean, I think the super jazzed people are always going to take the spots and that there aren't an unlimited amount of spots, but there are an, uh, an infinite amount of problems that need to be solved.

And so sometimes you won't be the one who is in the lab looking at the microscope and maybe that stuff, because someone was super jazzed and got into it right away. But maybe you are the one who's doing the coding. And then two years later you realize I have one of the best, like. The most known projects in the lab, but I panicked to sit at a computer for most of the day.

So I think that with research, it isn't really clear cut, and it's not like, uh, a class that you take where there's going to be three exams, and then there's, there's a final at the end. And then you're done research isn't like that. And so it becomes. It's it's really unknown for even the professors or the PIs involved.

And so we don't know where a tiny undergraduate project might end up. And so even if you are a little bit committed, maybe you've become more committed in the summer. And then in the next year, you kind of want your own project. So you end up getting one of the little littler student grants to support that.

And then it just keeps building from there. And so that's another plug for trying to get involved. As early as possible, just so that you can start off with maybe little bites where you just come to group meetings, then you just shadow a student for one afternoon and then you kind of volunteer a little bit more in the summer and then it keeps growing from there.

Wyatt: [00:17:30] So there's like a baby steps option. If you're a little shyer of a person who's like, I just want to see what this is all about. 

Elizabeth Vargis: [00:17:37] It's actually required. Baby steps are required because. For me and for my group in the past, there have been some very jazzed people who. Maybe committed to too early. And so we, they had to take a step back after we put in all this time.

So I require the baby steps. You have to come to group meetings and only come to group meetings for one semester. Then you start to shadow somebody because it's just better that way. 

Wyatt: [00:18:03] Yeah. No, I think that's great. Um, Kelsey, how has, um, participating in undergraduate research? Um, Helped you get through the pandemic, if it, I mean, I'm making a bit of an assumption there, but 

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:18:18] I mean, it definitely has it, let me have a job I could keep, which was great.

First of all, um, especially because I do computer stuff, you know, I, I'm also married and I don't always get. The first choice of where we get to live, you know, because he has a job and we go where his job is. And so, so it's been super nice to just have a, something stable in my life. Even when everything else is changing, I always have my computer project and whenever I'm stressed out, I'm like, okay, everything, the world is going terrible.

I'm like, let me just sit down and code for an hour and not think about anything else besides my project and my research. 

Wyatt: [00:18:58] Yeah. Are there any problems that you're excited to solve? Like, Ooh, there's this thing. And I really want to be involved in that.

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:19:08] When I was really little, I had this dream of being involved in connecting prosthetics to the brain and I, I would love if eventually I. I got to be part of a project that does that. And I know that, you know, a lot of computer work is going to have to go into that before when I was young, I always thought like, you know, it's just mechanical engineering, it's just biology.

And you're just messing around with the actual physical parts, but there's a lot of software that goes into all of these new devices. So I'm excited to try to get into the Biocomputing aspect of. Trying to connect a prosthetic to them. 

Wyatt: [00:19:48] Yeah. Yeah. Um, what did you know about undergraduate research before you started participating?

Kelsey Bradshaw: [00:19:55] Yeah, absolutely nothing. I didn't know anything. I went to BYU and they don't really have a lot of undergraduate research. They mostly focus on graduate. Students do research and undergrads. Prepare to do research. Um, so I had, I didn't have any opportunities before I got here. My first class I took here was like, Hey, you said, which is a thing that's cool.

And I was like, what? We do research that's so cool. I've, I've always wanted to do that, but I didn't know it was an option. And so coming here and my friend that was here, he's doing research and he was like, Hey, research is a thing. And I was like, yeah, for you, it's a thing. And I can't even the first class I took, they were like, research is a thing that you can do.

And I was. I didn't know anything about it, but I was like, you know what? I think it would be really cool. So I just went for it.

Wyatt: [00:20:45] Okay. Dr. Sand, why are you passionate about undergraduate research? 

Alexa Sand: [00:20:51] My passion for undergraduate research really started when I got to Utah state university and Dr. Joyce Kincaid approached me and asked me if I would like to mentor an undergraduate researcher. Anyway, she gave me the student Courtney. And Courtney blew my mind.

She was 18 years old, but she was already thinking at the level of most advanced graduate students. And she started working for me on a project that, um, I was kind of struggling with and she brought some real fresh air to the room and we ended up publishing an article together based on that work and just watching her.

Develop as a researcher gave me this incredible charge and I looked for ways to be involved in undergraduate research. Yeah. 

Wyatt: [00:21:38] Can you just tell me a little bit, um, why you chose, um, Dr. Litz and her, her student Cedric Manny, um, to be in this. 

Alexa Sand: [00:21:48] So Brianna Litz is an amazing passionate mentor. She is somebody who has so much commitment.

To exactly these ideas of inclusive undergraduate research. She runs an amazing interdisciplinary lab. In instructional technology, looking at the ways that technology can help us become more inclusive as educators. She does such a great job reaching out and recruiting students. Cedric is not someone I know personally, but I've been following his career at USU ever since he came.

Into the four-year degree program through the native American summer mentoring program, Cedric has just emerged as such a strong leader, uh, in the undergraduate research community. And he's really someone who's doing admirable work with Dr. Lynch.

Wyatt: [00:22:47] Okay. Doctor let's tell me what you do in your lab and why it's called the led lab. 

Breanne Litts: [00:22:54]  The led stands for learn, explore design. The main kind of focus of what we do in the lab is largely at the intersection of culture, um, technology and really, uh, sort of equity and social justice issues we share a desire to do work in and with communities.

So, um, as an example, one of our really big projects right now is with the Northwestern band. It's just shutting nation. Um, and we are working with their youth. This was also funded by the national science foundation. We have a five-year project to engage their youth in, um, technology and culture and science.

And so. We're using a place-based approach for that, which means there are certain sort of land sites that are very culturally significant to the tribe. The most common one that I think people hear about at Utah state as the bear river massacre site, one of the long-term goals is that the kids are going to be, um, there's going to be sort of like youth created media.

Uh, outputs there at the site that kids in the tribe have created and shared with the public that need came from the tribe they had sort of this need for youth programming. It was something they were really struggling with. And like, it just, I mean, that happens to be a thing that is an area of research for us.

And so, um, we wrote a grant together. We piloted some workshops together, um, and, and it came out of a need really in the community.

Wyatt: [00:24:26] Cedric. Tell me why you like working in the led lab? 

Cedric Mannie: [00:24:34] well, for me it will, in the beginning it would have been the work with the indigenous communities. Uh, I didn't really see much of that from anywhere else that I knew of.

Um, and now as time went on, you know, you see these, uh, community partnerships that they do have, and I want to work on all those projects, but. I don't have that much bandwidth, so 

Wyatt: [00:24:56] yeah. Yeah. Cedric, tell me how you first got started with undergraduate research in Dr. Liz's lab. 

Cedric Mannie: [00:25:03] Well, it started back when I was in tending the blending USU campus and when I was in the Fasten P program, the native American STEM mentorship program now S and P uh, Brings students from the blinding campus up to the Logan main campus to sort of get exposure to different labs that pertain to their interests, uh, in hopes that they would continue their education here at the main campus or anywhere just sort of give them exposure to research and labs.

Um, that was a big help for me in deciding to go to Logan. Um, it showed me that, you know, the large main campus isn't as scary as I thought it was going to be. Um, and then when I transferred up here to the main campus, I got in contact with them and I liked their work that they did with the indigenous communities.

And that's how I got involved with the lab.

Wyatt: [00:25:52]  Yeah. Yeah. Um, tell me about what kind of internet access you had growing up. 

Cedric Mannie: [00:26:00] Yeah, living on the Navajo nation, where I grew up, I was very lucky to have running water and electricity. So that was great. And so when those are luxuries to you, you know, internet or computers, even just a basic computer were out of reach for me until I got to like middle school or something, you get to use the computers at school. So that's also where I got very interested in computers and why I went into computer engineering. 

Wyatt: [00:26:32] Tell me about this. We got the beat. Um, research project, you work on Cedric, how did it get started? 

Cedric Mannie: [00:26:42] And we got the beat is a collaborative project between Camika and she's a health science student and I'm a computer engineering student and we decided to collaborate and help, uh, the indigenous communities.

And specifically we had the Navajo nation in mind. A lot of the times people use, um, running or exercise too. Workout. We wanted to approach that differently and help inspire specifically the you, um, thinking about it differently from a different perspective. So we want it to use technology. As a way to get them to think about health.

I don't know if that makes sense. 

Wyatt: [00:27:21] Okay. So often like running or some kind of physical activity is somebody's entry point into thinking about health issues. And instead of using that, you use computer and technology as an entry point to thinking about health. 

Cedric Mannie: [00:27:36] Yeah. So we knew we needed to use the technology to create, uh, some sort of device that helps them get insight on their own health.

So we decided to make the heart rate monitor. The sensor itself is like the size of a quarter. And you hold it in between your fingers, your index, finger, and thumb that connects to an Arduino microcontroller. The sensor sends a light signal into your skin and based on the density of the blood. A certain amount of the light is reflected back and that's how it detects the heartbeat.

Wyatt: [00:28:05] And what kind of results did you see after you worked with people in building heart rate monitors? 

Cedric Mannie: [00:28:12] Um, before COVID hit, uh, we were seeing a lot of positive results. Um, people were asking questions about how do I do this, or what other capabilities does this device have? But, you know, I was just glad to see them thinking in that sort of way.

Like, how else can I use this technology? 

Wyatt: [00:28:31] If you want to hear more from Cedric Manny's mentor, you can go back in the instead catalog and listen to episode 14, baking up a good online course with Dr. Brianne blitz. And here's my final question with Dr. Alexa sand. So, what are you doing in your tenure as the associate VP in charge of undergraduate?

Alexa Sand: [00:28:54] Well, I came into this role with a real understanding that the students for whom undergraduate research makes the biggest difference are students at risk of dropping out or having low grades. How do you reach those students? That's like a really tough question because the word research is a little scary and a lot of students think, Oh, that's not me.

I'm not a researcher. They think lab coats or whatever. And I think in my time in this office, I've really tried to put my energy towards building another message. That research really is for everyone. This is something that, uh, Dr. Bates started before I got into the. Work. And, um, he really, he really launched some interesting initiatives in this direction and I've just tried to build on what he did and think of other ways that we can become more inclusive in our practices as an undergraduate research office.

So specific measures, admitting sophomores to our research fellows program has been really key because that allows faculty to do a little bit of sort of pre mentoring and get those students engaged and then put them into the program instead of just taking the top. GPA and, and standardized test scores students and including them in the program, also working with the native American STEM mentoring program to partner our students with the students participating in that summer program.

So I really want to celebrate the diversity of. Kinds of research that take place as well as the diversity of researchers. 

Wyatt: [00:30:37] Thank you for listening to this special episode, celebrating undergraduate research at Utah state university, but this is your first time listening to instead. This episode is a little different, please subscribe and thumb through our catalog.

And I'm sure there's something you'll be interested in. My name is Wyatt and I produce instead as part of my work in the office of research at Utah state university.