On Jan. 17, Tom Raffel, an assistant professor of Biological Sciences, gave a presentation in Oakview Hall on “Taking Advantage of Undergraduate Research Opportunities.”
The event was organized by Oakland University’s Honors College for its students, who are required to create and present a thesis based in a type of research by their senior year. The Michigan Center for Undergraduate Research (MCUR) is housed by the Honors College in order to support undergraduates looking for projects to join. MCUR has a program called the Center for Undergraduate Research Leadership (CURL), whose goal is to provide specific and professional training for students in order to become research leaders among peers.
“The presenter [Raffel] is passionate and knowledgeable about undergraduate research and is supportive of helping students do it,” Dr. Robin Michel, a special Honors College lecturer and Faculty Fellow said. “Dean Harper initiated the Michigan Center for Undergraduate Research, which works with the University Research office to engage and support undergraduate research. The speaker was chosen through a discussion of a few people on who would be a great person to talk about this topic. Tom Raffel’s name came to mind immediately.”
Raffel is an accomplished author of three individual publications of his undergraduate works, the first of which he believes shaped his career. He currently has 10 students working for his own research studies.
He structured his lecture around four main points: “Why,” “Finding Opportunities,” “Interacting with Prospective Mentors” and “Developing Projects.”
The first portion pertains to the reasons why students are looking to get into undergraduate research programs, the fulfillment of school requirements and being paid to be there.
The second part focuses on finding a program to join. Raffel recommends students to look on faculty pages and other websites because there can be very little advertising beyond that. He said contacting professors via email is a great way to discover more about available research opportunities.
“Federal work study is when students get paid to be a part of an undergraduate research program,” Raffel said. “I find this very appealing typically, so do other faculty, because it means there will be incentive for student responsibility.”
The third step requires students to make themselves more marketable to their mentors in order to get hired. Researchers are looking for students who have qualified backgrounds to come work with them in their field. Students also need to find a mentor and connect with that person.
“I know that I can’t keep track of every deadline my students have or focus on all their progress at once,” Raffel said. “Be proactive in seeking guidance, it’s why mentors are there.”
The final stage is to develop a project. Students must come up with a new, original idea that pushes the boundaries of what is known. New scholarship evaluates new questions or creative endeavors. This can include running experiments and working on meta analysis.
“We all have failures in life and how you deal with them is going to be more important with how you handle success,” Raffel said. “Expect your experiments to fail but continue trying till they don’t.”
The Honors College is one of several programs at Oakland that either require or encourage students to be a part of undergraduate research. Students who are interested can either contact professors or look for research positions both on and off campus.