President’s Office

President’s speeches, letters, and articles

The Importance of Undergraduate Research

By John R. Kroger and Mark L. Poorman

Original research is one of the most powerful educational experiences a student can have. It forces you to think creatively, reason abstractly, collaborate, communicate, and overcome setbacks with creative solutions. It also promotes intellectual resilience and produces real contributions to human knowledge.

Undergraduates at Reed and the University of Portland have done original research on parasitic wasps, the human genome, applied ethics, neural plasticity, and excavating ancient Christian burial sites in Majorca—important work with far-reaching implications.

Students work closely with their professors on faculty research, and carry the insights and methods into their own projects. At Reed, every senior must produce a year-long research-based thesis, and defend it before a board of professors. This year at the University of Portland, nearly 200 seniors presented their capstone projects on Founders Day.

It’s a head start on the level of thinking that drives alumni to make an impact on the research world. Reed is a national leader in the proportion of its graduates going on to get doctorates. The University of Portland now has three graduates at Harvard Medical School, and a 2014 graduate, Kylie Leffler, won a National Science Foundation grant for undergraduate research on a neurodigestive condition called GM1-Gangliosdosis.

Shaped by our emphasis on diving into unresolved questions and undefined areas, our graduates are helping drive Portland’s economy. University of Portland’s business and engineering graduates include Mike Dowse, CEO of Wilson Sporting Goods, Augusto Carnerio, CEO of Nossa Familia Coffee, and Tommy Pham ’09, whose cancer research startup recently won an NIH grant to work on gene silencing.  Reed alumni have been power surging through the booming Oregon high-tech scene, including starting Puppet Labs and Urban Airship.

Research is inescapably expensive. Both of our schools have benefited from the generosity of the Murdock Trust, established by the founders of Tektronix, the Portland area’s seminal high-tech firm, with both founders having strong roots in UP and Reed. “About 20 years ago, we began to focus on undergraduate science research,” explains Steve Moore, CEO of the Murdock Trust. “In order for the ecosystem to thrive, you need to have undergraduates see what research is like.”

To nurture that ecosystem, Murdock has given millions to support research, including setting up laboratories that enable our professors, with help from their students, to win major grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Agriculture and multiple private foundations. The NSF has developed funding programs specifically for undergraduates, from Arctic research to documenting endangered languages. With that signal from the government’s major research funding arm, others have become more active, enabling Reed to bring in $2 million in research funding in a recent year.

The Council on Undergraduate Research, a national advocacy organization working “to support and promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship,” has been growing steadily, now counting more than 900 institutional members. Its immediate past president is Ami Ahern-Rindells, associate professor of biology at the University of Portland, who recently published an article on the ethics of undergraduate research – co-authored with a UP student.

She sets up her labs not to drive students through precooked experiments, but to ask their own questions: “They have the ability to fail and to troubleshoot, and that’s what science is.” Those skills, and the capacity to work together on a problem – “Science is very collaborative” – produce students prepared to take on and work through challenges: “Nationally, people are saying you need to be accountable for your graduates.”

Sarah Schaack, who teaches biology at Reed, came to believe in original undergraduate research when her college professor brought her to field sites. She follows the same principle with her students, transcending the limits of textbooks: “They learn about science by doing it. I’m not interested in students going through the motions.” With grants from the National Science Foundation and the Murdock Trust, Schaack works on developing workshops on the emerging areas of bioinformatics and genomics, designed to take participants “from zero to 100 miles an hour.” She develops them working together with Reed students, and then presents them to groups in East Africa.

While the clearest applications of research opportunities, and the early support from funders such as the Murdock Trust, have been in science, the principles and advantages of original undergraduate research extend to every subject we touch. The experience sends graduates out better prepared for not only further academic efforts, but for business, law, medicine or whatever path they follow.

We welcome the renewed focus on what students actually learn from their education. We’re convinced that the best way to learn is not just to acquire knowledge, but to seek it out.

John R. Kroger is the president of Reed College. Father Mark L. Poorman is the president of the University of Portland.

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