Sunday, April 21st, 2024

The Importance of Undergraduate Research

Balancing research, academics and athletics taught me skills and lessons that I can take with me after college.

By: Michella Salvitti
Biology & Science Writing Major, Millersville University

In science, research guides the precedent for everything that comes after. The collegiate environment is an area where research flourishes, and this includes undergraduate research. As an undergraduate biology student, I have found that undergraduate research is important because it validates much of what is learned in class. The scientific method is easily understood when taught in lecture, but it becomes an unforgettable lesson when applied in practice to an actual study.

There are many inherent challenges when pursuing a biology degree, such as the difficult course work and time consuming schedule. Most sciencebased courses include not only lecture but also a three-hour laboratory, and though the general familiarity with course content is attained during class time, greater depth of knowledge requires hours outside of class studying and working on laboratory reports. Also, the demands of a student athlete adds another level of complexity to an everyday schedule. Balancing academics and athletics taught me the importance of time management and communication with my professors. Time management is difficult and I wish there were more minutes in the day to complete everything, but the experience is rewarding, and in the long run, I believe worth it.

The same can be said for undergraduate research, which allows a student to apply what they have learned in the classroom to an actual scientific problem. Currently, I am part of a research team in Dr. Haines’ Applied Conservation Lab, reviewing documents for endangered vertebrates, invertebrates, non-flowering plants and flowering plants. For each species listed as endangered or threatened, a federal document is created detailing what past and current threats have caused population declines, as well as the justification for required federal protection. I have been involved in reviewing a number of final listing documents and identifying specific threats causing species to become imperiled. Threats range from habitat destruction and loss, disease, invasive species, climate change, pollution, and many other impacts that negatively impact populations. Final listing documents can be circumlocutory; therefore, I follow a set of detailed methods created to ensure that each document is reviewed consistently. After our team has finished compiling data, we will incorporate our database into a map to show the types of threats that are impacting species and how these threats have changed over time across the national landscape.

Developing consistent and repeatable methods allowed me, as a researcher, to be detailed oriented and taught me the importance of collecting scientific data in consistent fashion. In addition, as part of our data collection process, the research team reviewed each other’s work to validate our efforts, highlighting the importance of recording accurate data.

This past summer, I was also involved in field research through Dr. Wallace’s lab, and was fortunate enough to work with the Pennsylvania Game Commission (PGC) on testing local mosquito populations for the prevalence of the West Nile virus in ruffed grouse, Bonasa umbellus. Throughout the summer I hiked Pennsylvania’s State Game Lands to trap mosquitoes and then sent the specimens to a lab for West Nile testing. Two of the test sites reported positive results for the West Nile virus. This made me feel like the research I was doing was valuable and meaningful.

Although being a junior biology major is rigorous and tedious at times, I consider myself lucky to have undergraduate research opportunities, and I recommend that all undergraduates participate in research to gain experience, learn more, get excited, and determine if the biology field is right for them. I found that my professors were willing to work with me as a student athlete to accomplish as much as I could at the collegiate level regardless of my schedule. Balancing research, academics, and athletics taught me skills and lessons that I can take with me after college. Participating in undergraduate research has provided me with more experience and aided me in deciding what I want to do with my future.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019 newsletter of The Wildlife Society – Pennsylvania Chapter. It is posted here with permission from The Wildlife Society.

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