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NMSU program has undergraduate research down to a science

The room whirred with energy and excitement for discovery as 16 New Mexico State University undergraduates eagerly gathered in O?Donnell Hall to present their summer research in a public poster session earlier this month.


Students presenting their research posters to visitors
Sixteen NMSU undergraduates gathered in O?Donnell Hall to present their summer research in a public poster session Aug. 6. The students are NMSU?s Howard Hughes Medical Institute research and summer research scholars who have worked full-time since May on a research project alongside faculty mentors from various NMSU labs. (NMSU photo by Dana Beasley)

The students are NMSU?s Howard Hughes Medical Institute research and summer research scholars who have worked full-time since May on a research project alongside faculty mentors from various NMSU labs in the departments of biology, plant and environmental sciences, and animal and range sciences.

?Rather than just hearing people talk about science in lectures, this gives students the opportunity to do science as young scientists,? said Ralph Preszler, program director for NMSU-HHMI and department head for biology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Research Scholars Program is designed for juniors and seniors who would like to gain an in-depth understanding of the nature of research in the biological sciences. During the semester, research scholars work at least 10 hours per week in a research laboratory. The summer research session takes place between the scholars? junior and senior years.

?Before this, I hadn?t really worked in a lab,? said Clara Hansen, biology major and NMSU-HHMI research scholar. ?Actually working in the lab, having to go through the scientific method and coming up with your own research project was really exciting.?

Hansen works in the Animal Behavior Lab with Timothy Wright, NMSU professor of biology. For her research, Hansen is looking at sociability and the preferred social partnership in budgerigars, small Australian parrots. Her work will help the Animal Behavior Lab analyze the social structure in the colony of 42 male budgerigars.

?We know there are numerous job opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and we hope to increase the number of college students enrolled in STEM majors at New Mexico State University,? said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. ?NMSU?s HHMI is encouraging our students to see themselves pursuing STEM careers by offering them a variety of hands-on research experience as undergraduates.?

The program not only provides students in STEM fields an intensive laboratory research experience, but it also offers them opportunities to work independently and in groups to solve problems. This allows students to develop intellectually, while gaining analytical, organizational and communication skills.

?Students get introduced to the experience and culture of academic research,? said Graciela Unguez, professor of biology and NMSU-HHMI faculty mentor. ?Through learning and applying the method and process of scientific research, students get a good foundation to make an informed decision about whether or not they would like to apply for a more in-depth research experience after they graduate.?

Linday Selters, NMSU-HHMI research scholar and biology major, spent her summer working with Unguez. Selter?s focus of research is the Sternopygus macrurus, an electric fish native to South America.

In her project, Selters examined what happens when the fish?s electric organ is no longer electrically activated or receiving information from the brain. This data will provide new information on the effect of electrical activity on certain proteins and cells in not only fish, but also mammals.

?Although I have just begun my research in the Unguez Lab, I have learned more about working in a laboratory than I could ever hope to learn sitting down at a desk for semesters on end, or reading numerous textbooks,? Selters said. ?I learn by doing, and HHMI is the reason that I am beginning to feel confident that research is what I want to do with my life. I highly recommend this program to undergraduates and wish that I had applied for it sooner.?

In addition to conducting summer research, NMSU-HHMI research scholars enroll in a research methods course in the spring semester of their junior year, and an honors thesis course the fall semester of their senior year. In the thesis course, they are provided guidance as they work through the process of writing up their summer research into an undergraduate honors thesis.

?What I love most about my job is working in the lab doing research,? Unguez said. ?Sharing this experience with students can be so gratifying because I get to share my enthusiasm for science and knowledge of its process in a very hands-on environment ? one I prefer more than the lecture room. That?s why having the NMSU-HHMI Research Scholars Program is so exciting.?

The NMSU program has been funded by HHMI since 2006. For more information on NMSU-HHMI, visit hhmi.nmsu.edu.