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K-State Today

March 4, 2013

National Science Foundation-funded research program helping talented students seek higher degrees

Submitted by Communications and Marketing

When Desiree Harpel first started her major in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology, she thought being a wildlife ranger might be her only career option. But thanks to a National Science Foundation-funded undergraduate research mentoring program at Kansas State University, Harpel has discovered how the research side of her major can lead to her dream career.

The university's undergraduate research mentoring program in ecological genomics was launched in 2011 with a five-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal of the program is to get undergraduates interested in attending a professional school for research-related careers, said Ari Jumpponen, associate professor of biology, the grant's co-principal investigator and chair of its steering committee.

Ecological genomics is an integrative field that seeks to understand the genetic mechanisms underlying adaptive responses of organisms to their environment. As home to the Ecological Genomics Institute, Kansas State University is a leader in the field. Thirteen faculty members -- all affiliated with the institute -- from plant pathology, entomology and biology serve as research mentors to students in the undergraduate research mentoring program.

"I don't think there is another undergraduate research program in the country with such a specific focus on ecological genomics," Jumpponen said.

Six undergraduates a year are selected for the program through a competitive application process -- with prior research experience preferred. Each student receives a $15,000 stipend for the year and works with their faculty mentor -- preferably from the Ecological Genomics Institute -- to develop a supplemental research project that ties in to the mentor's research goals. Students also have several opportunities throughout the year to present their research on and off campus, including at the university's internationally recognized annual Ecological Genomics Symposium in Kansas City each fall.

The program is already showing its promise in getting students to seek higher degrees. Harpel and other students in the program know graduate school will be their next goal.

Harpel, a senior from Manhattan, is completing her first year in the undergraduate research program. Working with Jeremy Marshall, associate professor of entomology, she is studying the Allonemobius socius complex of ground crickets. It's one of three species in the complex whose boundaries are unresolved in the central U.S. Harpel is trying to assess the distribution of this species and determine whether or not there are areas of sympatry.

"My new career goal is to be a professor," she said. "The perfect marriage of teaching others how important science is, as well as being able to do my own research, is the dream job I've always been look for."

Harpel credits the undergraduate research program for the opportunity to attend graduate school. She's already has an informal offer from one school and is considering other schools as well.

"First, having this scholarship under my belt shows that I'm dedicated to research and will aspire to great things," she said. "Second, this whole experience has let me meet new people and develop professional relationships that I never dreamed of. I've made so many friends in the Division of Biology at Kansas State, and all of them are so helpful in giving advice and directing me in the right direction."

Stephanie Jacquez, senior in food science and industry, Liberal, is also a first-year member of the program. She, too, now has graduate school in her future plans.

"Before this program, I was not sure if I wanted to get a job right away after graduating or apply for graduate school. Now that I know what research is like, I really want to go to graduate school," Jacquez said.

Under the mentorship of Susan Brown, university distinguished professor of biology, Jacquez has researched the embryonic development of the cowpea weevil. Her current focus is inbreeding of Tribolium madens, the black flour beetle.

Jacquez said her prior research experience as a member of the university's Developing Scholars Program helped her land a spot in the ecological genomics undergraduate research program. The Developing Scholars Program is targeted toward first-generation and underrepresented college undergraduates and pairs them with a faculty member to do research. Several of the ecological genomics program participants have come from the Developing Scholars Program.

The deadline to apply for the third year of the program, which starts in the summer, is March 29. More information is available at http://ecogen.ksu.edu/urm.html. The process includes an application packet and submitting a brief essay. A tip for those who apply: Jumpponen said the essay tends to count more than a student's GPA in the selection process. 

"We are looking for good students. We want someone who is curious and who asks questions," he said.

Harpel encourages interested students to apply.

"This has been the most life-changing, fulfilling experience I’ve ever had," she said. "The one thing you have to have to be successful in this program is dedication. Although research is fascinating, it also extremely time consuming. Students have to be able to juggle their course work, research and events without letting any one area suffer. But even though sometimes things get hectic, the experience and the people that you meet are so very worth it."

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