The Changing Role of Undergraduate Research

It's not just for seniors any more -- even first-year students are looking for research opportunities

Anna Fisher traveled within Europe to conduct research on three women artists and returned with a deeper understanding of the relationship between feminist theory and art.

Jonas Swartz journeyed to Texas to study declassified documents on the Persian Gulf War and returned with a new perspective on the current conflict in Iraq.

Monique Bruinsma did research in a cell biology laboratory and helped solve a mystery about how a cancer protein moves from the surface of a cell to wreak havoc inside it.

Grants the Undergraduate Research Support (URS) Office in Trinity College helped all three students, whose experiences illustrate the changing goals of undergraduate research at Duke and other universities.

"We once thought undergraduate research was a senior honors activity, something students prepared for over three years and then did as a project," said Mary Nijhout, the Trinity College associate dean who oversees these programs.

"But that's not the way we're thinking of it any longer. We're thinking of undergraduate research as a way of learning that starts with students' very first year and stays with them throughout their entire college experience and life thereafter."

Last summer, Nijhout placed 26 students as research fellows with 26 faculty members in the biological and biomedical sciences. These students conducted research full-time for eight weeks, after their first year of college.

"Then if that's something they really see in their future, they have already built their own bridge to a faculty research lab and to other resources on campus," said Nijhout, who has also been working to provide similar research experiences for students in the humanities.

"We're trying very hard to increase student learning through research in the humanities," she said. "That's where we see fewer students in specially funded research programs. We have large numbers of students who are seniors in distinction, or honors, programs, but they typically haven't had research opportunities before their senior year. We're working to provide more of these experiences, just as we've done in the natural sciences."

Anna Fisher: Studying "Bad Girl Art" in Europe As soon as senior Anna Fisher began interviewing Viennese artist Elke Krystufek about the feminist themes in her paintings, she experienced first-hand what she had learned in theory at Duke -- the complexity of the relationship between artist and work.

Helped by a Deans' Summer Fellowship, Fisher traveled to Amsterdam, Vienna and Paris last summer to conduct research and interviews at the galleries of three women artists, among them Krystufek, whom she interviewed in Vienna.

A Program II major who is studying how art can change the visual representations of women and oppressed peoples, Fisher said she was attracted to these artists because of their fiercely independent work that challenges conventional representations of women in fine art.

"I am a feminist, and I came to this interview wanting to find that aspect in Krystufek's work," recalled Fisher, who describes the artist's work as being graphic and violent in its depiction of female trauma. "But Krystufek was very hesitant to identify herself as feminist or otherwise. She didn't want to be held back or constrained in her work by a label.

"At first, this was frustrating. I didn't really understand the need for such ambiguity. I came in expecting Krystufek to be as explicit a personality as her work -- as loud, as brash, as confrontational. I did not find that to be the case. She was reserved, thoughtful, humble."

These incongruities led Fisher to reflect on the cultural theory she had learned at Duke in courses such as cultural anthropology, women's studies and feminist theory. Eventually, she concluded that the artist's reluctance to be circumscribed grew out of the same independence evident in her work.

Fisher emerged with a deeper understanding of the connection between art and social theory, which she discussed in her thesis on Krystufek. This past semester, she taught a house course on "Bad Girl Art: The Power of the Female Creative Will," which covers various women's issues.

Jonas Swartz: Piecing Together the Logic of the Gulf War It would be difficult to pick the most exciting moment of Jonas Swartz's field research into the first Bush administration's decision-making process during the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91.

There was the Program II major's first-ever foray into an archival library, the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. There he studied declassified documents marked "For Your Eyes Only," meant for a handful of select advisors to the president.

Aided by a URS grant, Swartz traveled there this spring to browse through 69 boxes, looking for documentation on the administration's war aims and on how it decided to not enter Baghdad at war's end.

"The most interesting part of the trip was doing the research in an archival library. This was my first big experience with that," recalled Swartz.

Then there was the personal interview with Robert Gates, former CIA director and deputy national security advisor during the former Bush administration and a principal decision-maker in the president's advisory council. Gates told Swartz that one reason the administration steered clear of Baghdad was to avoid getting caught in an indefinite occupation of Iraq.

"That was one of the most striking things about my research, that the predictions they made about why it would be a bad idea to go into Iraq came true in this latest war. They had tremendous foresight," Swartz said.

Gates also told Swartz that the administration had separated the capture or overthrow of Saddam Hussein from its war aims. It considered the capture of Saddam to be a hope, but not an official goal.

"That's something I had thought about, but hadn't been able to put into words, and he put it into words very nicely for me," Swartz recalled.

Gates, who is now president of Texas A&M University, also described the inner dynamics of the advisory council, helping Swartz learn how leadership characteristics and administrative structure influenced the administration's war aims.

"Dr. Gates did a great job describing the leadership characteristics of all the other members of the council. None of their memoirs describes how individual leadership officials interacted and what their group dynamics were. This was especially important to my research."

Upon returning from Texas, Swartz faced the challenge of consolidating his findings into historical narrative, which he successfully concluded in an 80-page thesis. "I had no idea before going to Texas of the elaborate work required to construct history from primary sources," he admitted.

Monique Bruinsma: The Making of a Research Scientist Working in Gerard Blobe's cell biology laboratory, Monique Bruinsma discovered two important facts by her senior year. One was about the movement of a key cancer protein, the Transforming Growth Factor Ÿtype III receptor (TŸIII), from the cell surface where it usually resides to the cell's interior, where it distorts signals within the cell and encourages the cell to proliferate.

The other discovery was about herself, that she loved doing research and wants to continue pursuing it in the future.

"I don't do research to get credit in a course. I do research because I like research; I love research; and it's become one of the most important aspects of my undergrad career," said Bruinsma.

At the Triangle Undergraduate Research Symposium this past fall, she presented her findings that TŸIII moves to the cell's interior when in the presence of two other proteins, TŸII and Ÿarrestin 2, with which it binds. She credits this and other opportunities to the undergraduate research support grants she received from the Undergraduate Research Support Office beginning with her sophomore year, and to a recent Deans' Summer Fellowship.

"I did research during school and full-time during summer. Research on the side, while you're balancing everything else, is a lot different than research when you get to focus on it full time," she said.

She also credits the mentoring she received at Blobe's laboratory for stimulating her love of research.

"I've been in that lab since my freshman year, and had my principal investigator to talk with about my ideas and desires for the future. I also had the support of the entire lab, including the post-docs and graduate students. It was a great resource to have some of my closest friends doing what I plan on doing one day," she said.

Beyond the laboratory, Bruinsma struck up friendships with other researchers. Last summer, she shadowed Victoria Sewaldt, whose office is next to Blobe's. The following fall, she worked in the hospital with Sewaldt on breast cancer research.

"The most important part of my undergraduate experience has been that I've been able to take an idea -- "Oh, I want to do research" -- and see it applied," Bruinsma said. "That has defined my future goal of staying in academic research. I don't know how people would decide without experiences like this."

Jinendra Raja Jain: Growing in and out of the lab Graduating electrical engineering major Jinendra Raja Jain spent the last three semesters of his time at Duke researching ways to advance microscopic manufacturing.

Working side by side with both engineering and chemistry professors, Jain helped to develop a gate that switches nanotube-based electrical devices on and off. Nanomanufacturing is at the heart of efforts to miniaturize electronics to make them faster and better, and carbon nanotubes have tremendous potential for high-speed computing.

Jain was involved in all aspects of creating a finished electrical device, from growing nanotubes in the laboratory to fabricating and assembling different parts of the transistor circuit.

"A big part of my learning was finding out how to work well in groups of people from different scientific disciplines," said Jain, who conducted his research through the Pratt Engineering Undergraduate Research Fellows program.

No one can know everything, and learning how to ask questions and share expertise is critical, he said. "This project really brought together everything I've learned. I needed to understand aspects of quantum physics and chemistry, and then bring it all together through electrical engineering."

The Pratt program enables students to experience the academic research environment, particularly lab work, collaboration and writing and presenting research results. Fellows write a research report and present their work to peers and other professors as if they are at a real research conference. Many students publish their work or use it as the basis of later graduate work.

For Jain, the Pratt fellowship gave him an opportunity to learn how to use laboratory equipment and to understand the challenges of research. That will give him a head start in graduate school, he said. Jain was awarded a 2004-05 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in solid-state electrical devices at Stanford.

Sarah Pierce: Mixing Art and Chemistry In an unusual marriage of science and art, chemistry major Sarah Pierce began an independent project last summer analyzing material that a Duke art museum conservator "steam cleaned" from statue samples with the aid of a special laser.

The experience gave her "a greater respect for art conservation," said Pierce, a graduating senior from Marblehead, Mass. "I didn't realize what a difficult task it is to try to clean a work of art and preserve its history."

Continuing her work during her final academic year at Duke, she recently traveled to Florence, Italy, to deliver a scientific paper on the results of the laser-cleaning experiments.

"I was definitely nervous," recalled Pierce, 22. "I was the youngest person there, and the only undergrad. But it was a really good experience."

The opportunity to participate in research about the use of lasers to safely and effectively clean stone came during Pierce's junior year. That's when Adele de Cruz, conservator at Duke's Nasher Museum of Art, contacted Duke's chemistry department.

When Pierce's chemistry professor, Richard A. Palmer, told his students about the project, "I volunteered to stay at Duke over this past summer," she recalled. "That's when I did the majority of the work that I presented in Florence."

Although the concept of cleaning art with lasers isn't new, the Erbium:YAG infrared laser that de Cruz uses is special because it emits laser light at the precise wavelength that is absorbed by water molecules. Duke psychology and biomedical engineering professor Myron Wolbarsht and de Cruz were granted a patent in 1999.

Pierce's job was to determine exactly what the laser was removing from samples of statuary that de Cruz provided. Her analysis showed that the laser was removing gypsum that forms "when atmospheric pollutants interact with stone," she said. "We also found this compound called whewellite, which is formed by lichens when lichens attack stone."

When Pierce's senior colleagues were unable to get away to a March conference in Florence, the Duke senior agreed to travel to Italy alone and stand up before an audience of professionals in an ornate frescoed hall and deliver their research paper. She described her audience as "a meld of science and the arts." Written by Deepti Scharf. Monte Basgall, Deborah Hill and Shadee Malakou contributed to this article.