Many undergraduates major in science in the hope of doing research someday. The College of Science’s Science Research Initiative (SRI) is an innovative new program that puts students in a lab as soon as they arrive.
“The most consequential learning happens by doing, and that is especially true in the College of Science. Experiences in a laboratory-centered, team-based, interdisciplinary environment give students the skills to succeed and access opportunities in high-paying industries,” said Peter Trapa, Dean of the college. “The SRI offers incoming students, with no prior exposure to research, the opportunity to learn alongside their peers to gain hands-on, technical expertise, and learn directly from researchers as early as their first year at the U. The college’s exceptional faculty, world-class research facilities, and commitment to in-person experiential learning makes this unique program possible.”
Any student admitted to the College of Science can apply. During the first semester, the cohort of SRI undergraduates take a course that prepares them to work in a research lab. The course teaches principles of scientific inquiry, introduces students to the breadth of research in the College of Science, and breaks down the structure of a lab, such as the roles of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and the principal investigator. After learning about the research projects, known as research streams, the students rank the labs they’d most like to experience. The program matches them to a SRI faculty scientist leading the project where they will work during the second semester. Then, SRI mentors help each student figure out a path forward, whether it be continuing with the research stream, switching projects, or even finding alternatives to lab-based research.
The SRI is led by three scientists and educators who specialize in diverse disciplines. Dr. Joshua Steffen, Assistant Professor Lecturer of Biology, leads a research stream that uses metagenomic approaches to understand generalist foraging behaviors. Dr. Ryan Stolley, Associate Instructor of Chemistry, leads a research stream building an underexplored class of molecules. Dr. Heather Briggs, Associate Instructor for the College of Science, leads a research stream focused on understanding how microbial communities in flower nectar impact the way pollinators interact with plants.
Students who participate in the SRI leave campus with more than a cool college experience; they will graduate with the technical expertise to rise to the top of a competitive job market. A degree from the U is a pipeline to Utah’s STEM-based economy. Choosing to participate in the SRI is a fantastic path to a rewarding career and an opportunity to earn high-paying jobs in their field.
- by Lisa Potter
“We want to give as many students as possible in the College of Science a research experience as soon as they get here, totally independent of grades or previous experience. We’re different than other research programs because we remove a lot of the barriers that typically exist to getting into a lab. It can be intimidating to talk with faculty. We have a structured program that navigates that for the student. It’s also about building community. Research opportunities are one reason why you come to a big university like the U, but it’s easy to get lost and it can be hard to develop a community. We’re also hoping that this can help students connect with peers and mentors that they can rely on.”
Heather M. Briggs
“There is often a disconnect between how we do science and how we teach science. At the SRI we empower students to work through hypothesis generation, experimentation, and interpretation. This holistic process encourages a deeper understanding of concepts in practice and allows our students to take responsibility for their own learning. The SRI experience provides a supportive learning environment that fosters self-generation of ideas and ultimately a continued interest in research science.”
“SRI benefits students, but it’s also a great opportunity for faculty. We work with faculty to write SRI into the broader impacts section on grants. But also, most researchers will have an undergraduate researcher at some point—it’s sometimes a roll of the dice on how they perform. Now, we can have a structured program that has specific goals, outcomes, and it can train these students. And the faculty has the freedom to manage them as they want. We’d love to get excited researchers into the fold and pair them with students who are excited by the work they’re doing.”
A student majoring in biology who had previously worked in research labs. He applied to the SRI to get experience in a field he was passionate about.
“I wanted to get involved in research because it’s really important for graduate school. But it’s really difficult to do. You have to cold call or email professors and, often times, they don’t have a place for you. I think this program is really useful because the environment is more teaching focused. So, you’ll be able to learn the skills that you need to, if you want to eventually go out and do research in other areas. It gives you a good basis as to what research looks like, so that you’re prepared for that in the future. You don’t always get that training when working in labs.”
A third-year biology major who transferred to the U. “It was really hard to get into research where I transferred from because not every professor wants an undergraduate, and you’re not the only one trying. And here, well, as long as you’re in the program, you’ll be able to participate in research.
I think it’s always good to do some research, even if you don’t think you want to go to grad school. It’s always good to try something because you might end up liking it. I’ve had some students tell me that they changed careers because they ended up doing research and they’d rather do that. The SRI program gives you that initiative to actually start doing research.”
Give to the SRI
Demand for the Science Research Initiative is skyrocketing. More than 150 students have enrolled this year, and we are planning for 300 by fall of 2022.
Experiences in a laboratory-centered, team-based, interdisciplinary environment give students the skills to succeed and access opportunities in high-paying industries.
We know the majority of our students work at least part-time to make ends meet, and it is hard for many of these students to work in the lab instead of picking up hours at their jobs. Our goal is to remove this financial barrier by providing ongoing support for every science student who needs a scholarship.
If you would like to donate to the Science Research Initiative, the College of Science will match your donation dollar-for-dollar up to $50,000. Your donation can go further and help us provide this unique experience to more students. For more information please call 801-581-6958, or visit science.utah.edu/giving.