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Undergraduate Research: A Better-Trained Generation of Scientists

By Mary Ann Reese

Research experience for undergraduate students is right up there with top grades and internships as a key to getting a good job or admission to the best graduate schools.

"It opened a whole new world to me," says Jodi Johnson-Maynard, UI assistant professor of soil sciences, of her own undergraduate research in California. Graduate students she helped "became a huge influence in my life. They made me realize, I could do this. I could go on to graduate school. And I did."

Undergraduate

Undergraduate research became a national priority 20 years ago. Since 1989, $103 million in federal grants to Idaho universities has funded research for 665 Idaho undergrads through the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). Pauline Wanjugi, a UI junior from Kenya, finds research "gives me a chance to know my professors better" and "gives me a clearer idea of what I want to research in graduate school."

"Lab experience early on helps students decide whether they wish to become scientists, and it helps them decide among different fields of inquiry," says UI's Sanford Eigenbrode, an entomology professor who sponsors undergraduate researchers. "The long-term result is a better trained generation of scientists."

Conni Carson trades bartending for new antibiotics quest

Last year Conni Carson, 28, married and mom of 3-year-old Brooke, was tending bar to help fund her community college education in Tacoma.

This summer, with a $2,400 UI McNair research internship, she's wearing a lab coat and searching for new antibiotics to fight human diseases.

"I'm excited. It's going to be fun. I always wondered how we got anti-biotics. Now I get to experience it first hand," says Carson, now studying four of the most promising strains of bacteria found in sagebrush roots. The strains are extremely effective in killing fungi and other invasive microbes in sagebrush. Can they serve humans as well as they do sagebrush?

"This study will show that four selected Actinomycetes strains isolated from sagebrush rhizo-sphere soil samples will produce a variety of antifungal/antimicrobial activities that could be potentially useful in medicine," says Carson's research abstract, required of each McNair participant.

"Those tiny cultures were alive!
With her first look into a microscope at community college, Carson says she was hooked on microbiology. "I took it as an elective, with no clue what it was about. But I got so excited to know those tiny cultures were alive! That was it."

The Carsons moved to Moscow in summer 2004, when financial aid and student loans helped Carson focus full-time on her studies as a UI junior in microbiology, molecular biology and biochemistry.

Her McNair grant was icing on the cake. One of the federal TRIO programs that support higher education for low-income, first-generation students (meaning neither parent has a college degree), the UI McNair program gives support to 22 UI undergraduates each year for four years. Research experience and smoothing the way to graduate school is the focus (see www.uidaho.edu/mcnair/).

Carson meets weekly to discuss her research with her mentor, Professor Don Crawford. This spring Carson won the UI student support services outstanding academic achievement award and the Richard Gibb award for outstanding non-traditional student.

Her dream job? "I want to work for the Centers for Disease Control." But first, there's graduate school and those new antibiotics to help discover.

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Clarisse Vaury invents a new sherbet flavor-Pina Colada


By Bill Loftus

University of Idaho junior Clarisse Vaury reached a milestone this April that few food science students can claim: The Schwan Food Company marketed a sherbet featuring a flavor she developed, its fleet of signature Schwan's Home Service yellow trucks carrying her product to neighborhoods nationwide. To try it, ask for a scoop of pina colada.

Pinacolada

Vaury developed the new flavor during her 2004 summer internship at the Marshall, Minnesota, headquarters of the largest, branded frozen-food company in the United States.

"Clarisse did a wonderful job for us," says her Schwan manager Scott Garcia. "She reviewed products we currently sold and then suggested new products. Based on our comments, she adjusted her formulations and made six prototype samples."

To develop her new sherbet flavor, Vaury worked directly with industrial flavoring suppliers. Her list of concepts considered texture, color, taste, and additions like marshmallows or nuts. She conducted taste tests with colleagues in Schwan's laboratories, and one flavor emerged a winner.

Mastering research is critical

Vaury sees mastering research as critical to her future. "It's a pretty hard part of our field. Master research and you are set for anything." She's also trying different types of research. Unlike UI labs requiring measured assays, she found Schwan "mainly required brainstorming, with more emphasis on ideas than scientific facts." This summer's internship is at Pace International, post-harvest specialists in Yakima, Washington.

Now facing her sixth semester at the UI, Vaury is double majoring in food science and Spanish. A native of Normandy, France, she began her UI studies as a pre-vet major, then switched to food science after a guest lecture by Jeff Culbertson, UI food science professor.

In April Vaury won the CALS Department of Food Science and Toxicology outstanding undergraduate research award.

Her career goals include working for a food company that will value her fluency in three languages. Given a choice, she would probably pick a career working with ice cream, or perhaps cheese, reflecting her heritage and Normandy's fame for its dairy products. "Anything that is dairy I think I would enjoy."

That future job will determine whether she returns to France or finds a position in favored locations such as Spain, Venezuela, or the U.S.

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COLLEGE OF AGRICULTURAL AND LIFE SCIENCES