Students discovering the beauty of doing research — long before graduate school

Two mosquitofish — one mottled black, the other moonlight silver — go at it in their tank like a couple of brawling cowboys. If this were a saloon, the feuding fish would have been thrown out long ago. But beneath the fluorescent glare in a small laboratory within Florida State University’s Department of Biological Science, their aggressive posturing is of profound interest because of the potential research implications.

Florida State graduate student Brittany Kraft and her research assistant, Emily Williams, an FSU senior majoring in biology, watch intently as the pair spar in a tight circle while also attacking their reflections in a swatch of cardboard mirror taped to the side of the tank. When it’s clear that the nastiness isn’t going to stop anytime soon, Williams grabs a net and scoops one of the fish into another tank, effectively ending the fight.

"This species is known to be very aggressive," said Kraft, who first became passionate about research as a high school student and later as an undergraduate when she learned about research opportunities in the laboratory of Professor P. Bryant Chase, chairman of FSU’s biology department. "The black mottled males are much more aggressive than the silver. So if color pattern is genetically determined, we also might assume aggression is genetically determined."

Chase, along with a cadre of current and former students, recently published a research paper with surprising new results in the peer-reviewed journal DNA and Cell Biology. Five authors were undergraduates and two were high school students in FSU’s Young Scholars Program when they worked on the research project. (The paper, titled "Interaction Between Troponin and Myosin Enhances Contractile Activity of Myosin in Cardiac Muscle," is available online; the print version will be published this fall in an issue of the journal that focuses on undergraduate research).

Sharing a byline with the chairman of the biology department has proved an auspicious start for these undergraduates, who get to see their names splashed in an academic journal — a thrill usually experienced at the graduate level.

Such kudos, however, are not uncommon at Florida State.

These days, an increasing number of FSU undergraduates are partnering in substantive ways with professors to move important research forward. And Chase wants the world to know that his research — which is "all about trying to understand how the healthy heart works, and changes that occur in heart disease" — has been supported for years by enthusiastic undergraduates.

"When you think about undergraduate research, it’s an investment not just in that project but in the future of science," he said. "You never know where these students will go and what interesting career paths they will follow."

Undergraduate research is flourishing not only in FSU’s biology labs but in myriad disciplines campuswide: The 2011 spring semester marked a milestone for undergraduate research with the inaugural publication of The Owl — the university’s first-ever journal devoted solely to showcasing an eclectic mix of undergraduate research and creative endeavors, from poetry to religion to science.

In his own department, Chase has documented a spike in undergraduate research in recent years, a finding he has quantified and written about in a paper he hopes to publish soon.

"There has been a tenfold increase in the last decade," said Chase, whose gentle manner and encouraging spirit has inspired many FSU biology majors to pursue their own research.

He attributes this youthful research bubble to burgeoning student interest, as well as "the growing realization that there are many opportunities available." Chase also credits a new generation of research-driven faculty, as well as more federal and state funding for science, engineering and biomedical research at the university level.

The Owl is named for the bird pictured in the official seal of West Florida Theological Seminary, the earliest predecessor of Florida State, which existed from 1851 to 1901. The new journal highlights undergraduate research on such weighty topics as "Applications of Artificial Neural Networks in Mushroom Edibility Classification," "Religion and Modernity: The Fire Sermon," and "Yemen: Al-Qaeda’s Next Fortress."

The magazine, although jaw-dropping in breadth and scope, was churned out on a meager, student-size budget. Its first run of 2,000 issues was produced for $6,500. The idea was to shed light on what the magazine’s founders call a powerful conversation among emerging scholars at the undergraduate level.

"I think education is meant to be interactive — and research gives a student the opportunity to synthesize what they’re learning from their professors," said Owl associate editor William Boyce, an earnest and articulate FSU senior and honors student majoring in history, creative writing and religion. "The natural outgrowth of that is to start to engage and begin the process of researching something yourself, although at the undergraduate level, research sometimes seems scary, especially to humanities students (who often must initiate original research)."

Kristal Moore Clemons, the associate director of Florida State’s Office of Undergraduate Research, puts the number of FSU undergraduates involved in research at about 3,000 annually, including students who take on an honors-in-the-major thesis, which has long required original student research. Clemons was first charged with bringing the research journal to fruition in 2009, when she was hired at Florida State.

"The Student Council for Undergraduate Research and Creativity and I approached the Student Government Association and said, ‘I know we’re the best in ACC athletics, but let’s be the best in ACC academics.’"

Clemons praises The Owl‘s "super-motivated" team of students, who served as advisers and also comprised the publication’s core editorial staff, lending their talents to the design and editing. One of the founding staff members is undergraduate Vincent LaBarbera, who also made central contributions to the DNA and Cell Biology paper. (In less than two weeks, Clemons says, they learned the ins and outs of everything from publishing software to financial compliance).

Clemons hopes to have an annual call for undergraduate papers and enough motivated students to publish The Owl every spring, whether in print, online or both. And if she has anything to do with it, there won’t be a shortage of undergraduate research to highlight.

"Even if a student never has a career in research, doing research as an undergraduate will impress an employer," Clemons said. "It will show that a student has learned communication and writing skills, time management skills, and that they can stick with a project from start to finish."

Clemons says her office encourages students in all disciplines — not just the sciences — to be involved in research, and has provided funding for everything from musical compositions to performances to literary endeavors.

"I tell students all the time: Do it, do it, do it — because they have to start thinking early in their careers about all the research opportunities available, and what will open doors," she said. "Even if they don’t get that starring role on Broadway, for example, they might end up writing, directing or studying plays."

FSU senior Abby Kinch, 29, who is married and the mother of two young children, had already served as a linguist in the U.S. Air Force when she enrolled at Florida State to earn her bachelor’s degree. Her interest in foreign languages spawned a research study exploring — among other things — whether English grammar proficiency among native English speakers predicts aptitude in learning certain languages. Her research, Kinch hopes, will open the doors to a doctorate in developmental psychology, specifically the study of language acquisition, particularly among children.

Her take on the value of undergraduate research?

"It gives you an edge up in getting into graduate school, which is getting ridiculously competitive because of the economy," Kinch said. "More and more people are applying to graduate programs, so it’s a good bonus to have already written a thesis or designed a research question."

FSU senior Karlanna Lewis, a creative writing and Russian major with honors, has been researching the parallels between dance and literature in the Soviet and post-Soviet ages. Like her fellow undergraduate researchers, she presented her findings at various conferences and at one of two Undergraduate Research Symposiums held yearly by the FSU Office of Undergraduate Research.

Lewis’ passion for Russian literature and dance took her on a journey that led to Moscow State University and to the apartment/museum of famed Russian ballerina Galina Ulanova. Back in Tallahassee, Lewis made good use of FSU’s Strozier Library, where she spent days engrossed in research and checked out "bags full of books."

Lewis calls the resulting 45-page research paper written for an honors-directed independent study course in Russian "an actively driven" academic period that led her toward tangible scholarly results.

"By doing research as an undergraduate, it helps create less of a divide between being in class and being in the real world," she said.

Getting involved isn’t hard for most FSU undergraduates. From the time freshmen enter the requisite "Biology 101," research opportunities are hard to miss because "they’re posted everywhere," recalls graduate student Kraft, "on fliers and department websites."

Typically, says biology department chairman Chase, most undergraduates find their research niche their junior year, but some start sooner, depending on the academic skills, research background and motivation that they bring with them to Florida State.

For biology major Williams, a desire to understand the aggressive behavior patterns of mosquitofish was stirred during a casual discussion in her animal behavior class, where Kraft served a graduate teaching assistant. Kraft explained to the class of undergraduate students that her research explored "whether aggression and color pattern could be determined by genes and how it could be used to study a genotype by environment interaction" — in other words, how genes and environment interact to produce an outcome. Kraft wanted to put the two types of mosquitofish males in different environments to see how aggression — determined by genes — and environment interact.

"She showed her research work in a discussion one day, and I thought it was really
interesting," remembered Williams, who, in addition to assisting with experiments that sometimes requires four days to complete, also helps with basic maintenance work such as "exchanging water in the fish tanks, cleaning and feeding."

The flow of undergraduates passing through Florida State’s biology research labs is so circular, it’s worthy of a diagram. Kraft, who got her initial inspiration in Chase’s lab as a high school student, did so at the urging of her mother, Brenda Schoffstall, who was an FSU graduate student and was involved in research with Chase.

Schoffstall, now a professor at Barry University in Miami Shores, teaches anatomy and physiology, biology and histology, and oversees her own small research lab with several undergraduate researchers. She is essentially passing on the undergraduate torch lit by Chase, her professor and mentor, who has now inspired two generations of FSU women to embrace scientific research.

And best of all, both mother and daughter share co-authorship bylines in Chase’s current paper in DNA and Cell Biology.

The whole experience has left a deep impression on Kraft.

"It’s my first publication," she said one afternoon while heading to check her tanks of mosquitofish with undergraduate researcher Williams, "and I’m very proud of it."