Ag research fuels SDSU undergrads

Erin Beck

The College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences has shattered the illusion that research is exclusive to grad students and faculty. Research isn’t just a dream for undergraduate students. It’s a reality.

Associate Dean and Director of Ag/Bio Academic Programs Donald Marshall described undergrad research as a student and faculty member teaming up to write a proposal and diving into the project together once the proposal has been approved.

According to Marshall, undergrad research has many different faces across the broad spectrum of the Department of Ag/Bio. Projects range from dealing with microbes to genetic mapping in plants all the way to projects involving natural resources and livestock production.

“I think that there’s a number of ways that it benefits (students),” Marshall said.

Not only does it provide students a valuable experience that they can point to on their resumes — it may be the deciding factor on whether or not they go to grad school.

“It’s very beneficial,” said Barry Dunn, dean of the College of Agriculture and Biological Sciences. “National statistics would tell you that retention in college and graduation rates are higher for those who participate in undergrad research projects.”

“You learn more about time management and have more fervor for your career,” said Heike Buecking, associate professor in the Department of Biology and Microbiology.

Associate Dean and Director of Agricultural Experiment Station Daniel Scholl sees undergrad research as a very important investment at SDSU. To Scholl, undergrads engaged in research are a vital investment for what lies on the horizon.

“Research is important for undergrad education, because as we train undergrads, we’re training them to be the innovators on the ground for the future,” he said.

According to Scholl, undergrad research prepares students to better become leaders and stand out among their peers. Especially for students in the College of Ag/Bio, research holds value in that it enhances their understanding of agriculture.

“Today’s undergrads will have to adapt new knowledge to real life situations, and the more creative they are and the better they understand the process of developing technology, the better they’ll be at applying that for tomorrow,” Scholl said.

According to Dean of the Honors College Timothy Nichols, with both lab and field research opportunities available, students have tremendous hands-on learning opportunities waiting at their fingertips.

“(The College of Ag/Bio) probably engages more students in undergrad research because the infrastructure is there to support lots of opportunities,” Nichols said.

Nichols encourages undergrads to think outside the box and not feel limited to conducting research in only their field of study. He feels that a broader awareness and engagement in other areas will develop stronger research and critical thinking skills when stepping outside of their comfort zone.

“Ag research presents so many wonderful opportunities for students,” Nichols said.

Scholl points out that a reason that agricultural research is so prevalent on campus is because of the number of faculty members engaged in involving undergrads in research. He sees this as an indicator of how important agricultural research is at SDSU.

“There’s lots of faculty members across campus working in research,” Marshall said. “Many would welcome the opportunity to work with an undergraduate.”

Faculty members in research include Associate Professors Buecking and Jose Gonzalez.

Buecking, a microbiologist in plant science research, urges students with an interest in research to get involved as soon as possible, including freshmen.

“You’ll actually learn a lot of research techniques and get a lot more real life experience than going into a lab environment where everything is already set up for you,” Buecking said. “That doesn’t give you a lot of independence on what you can do, but a kind of research experience does.”

Gonzalez, a plant geneticist working with wheat genetics and perennial grasses for biomass production, stresses the importance of getting involved in undergrad research not only at SDSU, but at universities across the U.S. For undergrads interested in research during the school year, he recommends engaging in research at SDSU. Summer internships across the nation in different research programs offer an alternative route for students and a broader experience.

“They pay well, with good stipends and most expenses paid,” Gonzalez said.

The National Science Foundation provides undergrads opportunities to apply for different research programs and gain a competitive edge for their future careers, whether that means grad school or heading out into the work force.

“It’s a good opportunity for students to get a little bit of real-time experience in areas they might be interested to pursue later and see if that’s really something to go for,” Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez and Buecking suggest that undergrads interested in research talk to a faculty member involved in research in order to get pointed in the right direction.

One of those faculty members is Rebecca Bott, an assistant professor in the Animal Science Department working with equine management and reproductive physiology. Bott has mentored several undergrads undergoing research projects.

“(Involving undergrads) is such a neat part of the experience,” Bott said. “One of my favorite parts is having students in research. You get to know them on a whole other level.”

Bott sees research as the perfect opportunity for students to test their interests and see if research is something they really enjoy and want to continue pursuing. Becoming involved in research boosts students’ confidence in what path they decide to choose for their future career.

“You have to find the right fit for project and student, and then really neat things start to happen,” Bott said.

According to Bott, undergrad research gets students right into the ground floor of discovery and allows them to be the first to share that discovery with the rest of the world. Research also allows students to hone other skills that will come in handy in the professional world.

“There are so many opportunities if you want to get practice, not only thinking about data, but also becoming more polished with presentation skills,” Bott said. “What good is research if you can’t communicate it?”

Angie Gebhart, a 2012 SDSU graduate, worked closely with Bott on a research project to analyze the welfare of horses on Native American reservations. Her project included surveying veterinarians around the state of South Dakota about this topic, followed by a comparative analysis that looked directly at welfare indicators among that particular equine population. Gebhart and Bott then began some extension projects with horse owners and local tribe members from reservations.

“Planning an entire research project, from funding to planning participants to presenting and publishing, gave me incredible confidence in myself and a glimpse into the world of working in academia,” Gebhart said.

According to Gebhart, the research that she conducted during her time at State was the most influential thing she did in college that has impacted her future. She also built an extensive network, meeting tribal members, horse owners and veterinarians from around the world.

Tishawnna Carpenter, a junior animal science student, is also working as an undergrad in research with Bott. Carpenter’s project, which began in Feb. 2012, focuses on equine immunology and is looking at the effects of yeast supplementation on immune function parameters in horses.

With intentions of becoming a veterinarian, Carpenter sees her research project as an ideal way to become more experienced with lab techniques that she will have to use in the future. It will also help her decide if research is something she wants to continue when she reaches vet school.

“The project has been a lot of work, but I am proud to have had the experience,” Carpenter said. “By the time the project is done, I will have seen all aspects of a research project from beginning to end.”