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Discovering their path: Beckman research experience benefits undergraduates and labs

Undergraduates working at the Beckman Institute have found the experience benefits them in many ways.

Published on Dec. 8, 2009

William Greenough is a Beckman Institute founding father and research theme co-chair, as well as one of the most prominent neuroscience researchers in the country. But he started out his academic career as a journalism student.

During an interview with a psychology professor at the University of Oregon for a story, Greenough was introduced to the world of research. The professor was prominent neuroscience researcher Jim McGaugh, whose work Greenough had studied in preparation for the interview.

“When I went to see him I just wanted to see if there was a story there,” Greenough said. “He really took the time to describe the experiment he was working on in great detail. He said ‘now, what would you do for the next experiment?’ I basically bluffed my way through it and he was impressed that somebody who just walked in could come up with these kinds of ideas. But I had read about every paper he had published.”

Greenough ended up taking a class from McGaugh and getting into the fields of psychology and neuroscience research. Like Greenough, many undergraduate students working at Beckman have seen their academic and life plans change once they began doing research.

There are more than 300 undergraduate students who work on research projects or in labs at Beckman and many more who are involved in research projects with Institute researchers. For many Beckman faculty members like Greenough, undergraduates are an important part of their research and laboratory work.

For some undergraduates, the experience of working in a lab or on a project has broadened the desire they already had to do research, while for others it has caused them to rethink where they were headed in life. In the case of University of Illinois undergraduate student Shelia Schneider, it was the latter.

Schneider agreed to take part as a subject in Beckman faculty member Deana McDonagh’s Relevant Design and Disabilities class. Schneider, who is visually impaired, worked with a design student in the class, which includes students with disabilities as an integral part of the product design process. The class eventually led Schneider to working with McDonagh on more projects involving research and product development, as well as a new career path.

“It changed my whole direction,” Schneider said. “My original direction once I got done with my sculpture degree was to create a space for people with disabilities to explore their creative sides. That was my original intent. When I got started with Deana, it just kind of rolled into something completely different, which I am really excited about.”

For some students, doing research hasn’t changed their goals, just added another dimension to academic and personal plans. Such was the case for Kim Lavin of Greenough’s lab and Stuart Schelkopf of Beckman faculty member Jeff Moore’s research group. Lavin chose biochemistry as a major specifically so she could do research, and joined Greenough’s lab in order to work on projects that involve people.

“I wanted to do something I could relate to and he studies Alzheimer’s and Fragile X,” Lavin said. “I liked the idea of doing research that would keep motivating me.”

Schelkopf said he was interested in organic chemistry and, while looking for a research group to do research, investigated the work that Moore’s lab does.

“I didn’t have a certain focus that I wanted to pursue so I went to him to see where he needed help and he placed me,” Schelkopf said. “Doing research really helps to get into grad school and it looks great on your resume, but I also really wanted to do research just because I love doing that.”

"You are working in the field and your work is really pertinent. That’s the best part about working in research, and that is something I didn’t know until I got in the lab." – Michael Kurowski

Michael Kurowski said he didn’t know anything about research before joining William O’Brien’s Bioacoustics Research Laboratory at Beckman.

“I just heard bad things about research, like you don’t want to be in a lab all the time; you want to be out making money,” Kurowski said. “But being in the lab is so exciting because you’re developing things. You are working in the field and your work is really pertinent. That’s the best part about working in research, and that is something I didn’t know until I got in the lab.”

All four of the undergraduates are seniors at the University of Illinois. Kurowski will graduate in December with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, while Schelkopf graduates in May with a degree in Chemistry and plans to go on to dental school. Lavin will graduate in May with a Biochemistry degree and plans to go to medical school. Schneider is slated to graduate in May from the School of Art and Design with a degree in sculpture.

Schneider is happy about earning her degree in sculpture but her future plans after college involve designing for people with disabilities, thanks to a conversion to McDonagh’s approach to design, which includes the product user as an integral part of the designing process.

After her stint as a subject in McDonagh’s class, Schneider took on a project for a competition that involved her and a collaborator designing a watch-like device that helps those with disabilities and others find their way around campus and within campus buildings.

McDonagh does not have a lab at Beckman, so Schneider’s research experience is different than most Institute undergrads. She meets with McDonagh on a regular basis to talk about their current project involving tactile math. The project integrates Braille into sculptural forms that rely on gestural movements in order to teach mathematic principles to children with visual impairments. Schneider said that, as with any child, visually impaired children will have a better educational experience if they begin to learn early and before their condition worsens.

“What we’re hoping to do is to generate interest in these grade school kids and give them a method by which they can learn mathematics instead of just relying on someone else,” Schneider said.

For other undergrads, working in a Beckman researcher’s laboratory has been one of the best experiences of their time at the University of Illinois. That is certainly true for Kurowski, Lavin and Schelkopf. They say the lab experience has added to their knowledge of how to do research, has made their scientific knowledge more broad-based, and that the research group experience has prepared them for other challenges, such as public presentations.

“You have to be prepared at all times,” Schelkopf said of the Moore group meetings. “That is one of the most important things that I’ve learned. They’re firing questions at you and they are always looking for new ideas. You really want to be an interactive member of the group so you want to bounce ideas off them. If you have a question they are always willing to help you out and throw some ideas out there to progress your research.”

Kurowski said that O’Brien fosters a team approach in the Bioacoustics Research Laboratory.

“The thing about Dr. O’Brien is that is a large group and he does such an amazing job of keeping everybody together on the same page,” Kurowski said. “We are really close-knit. We have cookie time every Thursday where everyone meets informally and talks. We have summer get-togethers. Everyone is really close and it really helps the atmosphere in the lab.”

Lavin said she has gained specialized knowledge from working in the Greenough lab that she would not have gained elsewhere.

“I love my lab,” Lavin said. “I have learned so much there. A lot of the processes and techniques you use in a psychology lab are very useful in many labs.”

One experience the undergraduate students have appreciated is the attention they have received from their fellow lab members, whether it comes from postdocs, grad students or other undergrads.

Lavin said Greenough lab postdoctoral researcher Deepa Venkitaramani has been a tremendous asset for her.

“Deepa has taught me so much more than what I had learned before,” Lavin said. “She has so much experience that she can teach me all the little tricks that they would never teach you in a course.”

"I would definitely encourage any freshman, sophomore, or student at any level to get involved with research."
Stuart Schelkopf

Schelkopf said fellow Moore group members are “always willing to help you out and throw some ideas out there to progress your research.

“It’s very challenging but it’s really good preparation. It allowed me to improve my performance for when I presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium for 2009 and also for the self-healing materials conference. It helps you do your research too because you have to know the ins and outs and know everything about the research you are conducting.”

Kurowski said the BRL has a very open atmosphere.

“You can do as much work as you want and get involved in as many things as you want,” Kurowski said. “If a student is working on a project, you go up and talk to them and they will explain everything to you. It’s remarkable.”

Greenough has had many undergrads from his lab go on to success. One of his first students, Fred Volkmar, was recently named as one of four winners of the 2009 LAS Alumni Achievement Award from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Greenough has dedicated his career to doing research, but said that some undergrads find working in a research lab isn’t for them.

“People have a feel for a discipline or they don’t,” Greenough said. “People go into labs thinking they want to try it, but a good number of those say this isn’t for me. They say, I like my weekends before it is dark as well as after.”

But for those who do take to it, like Schelkopf, the experience is one worth recommending.

“I would definitely encourage any freshman, sophomore, or student at any level to get involved with research,” Schelkopf said. “It’s been a great experience and really helped me out. It’s allowed me to work with grad students who are brilliant in chemistry. If I have any questions I can go to them to help me with class as well as research. It’s very supportive.”