You’re not just an undergrad
Research opportunities give students a chance to apply knowledge
Many University of Idaho undergraduate students have the opportunity to participate in their own research with the help of faculty such as Peter Fuerst, a UI assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the University of Idaho College of Science.
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Fuerst has been at UI for six years. In that time, he has given undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct research projects the same way graduate students at UI do.
He believes undergraduate students belong in the research labs. Although many undergraduates are still learning the basics of their discipline, they can make important contributions to research.
“They’re bright and have a lot of motivation,” Fuerst says.
Students interested in doing research might not be sure how to find opportunities, but shouldn’t be afraid to seek them out. Fuerst says the best way to get into research is for students to search for faculty members in fields they find interesting. Then it’s up to the students to show the faculty members how much they’re interested by learning about the research, finding an aspect of research they are interested in and then meeting with the professor to discuss their work.
Training students costs professors their time, but Fuerst says it’s worth it.
Currently, Fuerst and his team of six undergraduate biology and psychology majors are focusing on how to get “the adult nervous system to fix itself after is has been damaged.” The developing nervous system in embryos and infants is able to fix itself much easier than an adult’s, but Fuerst says the reason is unknown.
The students who work in Fuerst’s lab, like those working on many other research projects with UI faculty members, get there in one of three ways. First, they can volunteer: It’s a great way to gain the experience and necessary tools before partaking in an extensive research project. The university also offers research credit as a 400-level class in many fields of study. The final option is finding a research position that pays.
“If students have to pay their way through college, we still want them to be able to get the experience,” he says.
Other students receive grants for their work, whether through the Office of Undergraduate Research, other university programs or outside agencies. In Fuerst’s lab and others on campus, some students are funded by the Idaho INBRE program, which offers a summer fellowship to students across the state.
Fuerst says each of his students initially learn one lab procedure extremely well, and then begin to learn other techniques. After a couple of years, the student is then able to train new undergrad students on the subject.
“The most important thing we can teach our students is how to ask the right questions,” he says.
Many of Fuerst’s students are graduating this spring, so he is hoping to find new students to train to continue on with the research. Students might think an undergrad will only be assigned to clean dishes, but it’s much more than that.
“I want students to become more aware of their opportunities,” Fuerst says.
Writer: Emily Lowe, from Kuna, is a sophomore majoring in journalism. She hopes to write for a travel or outdoor magazine in the future.
Photographer: Kira Hunter, from Emmett, is a junior majoring in biology and minoring in professional writing. She plans to enter the science field as either a scientific writer, GMO lawyer or genetic counselor.