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Student-Led Discoveries

April 19, 2018
woman with papers in front of her
As a McNair Scholar, Jonet Jennings focused her research on counterterrorism.

UW supports undergraduate research, which powers the next generation of thinkers, creators and problem-solvers. 

By Micaela Myers 

For senior Jonet Jennings of Parker, Colo., participating in undergraduate research not only helped prepare her for graduate school and her potential FBI career, but it also helped her become a better student during her time as an undergraduate.

“I’m a first-generation college student, so I think that doing undergraduate research has benefitted not only my graduate career but also my career now,” she says. “I’m a better writer and reader, and that has helped this year with my classes.”

The benefits of undergraduate research aren’t just anecdotal: Studies show participating in undergraduate research is a high-impact experience that can help students explore career paths, learn teamwork, gain confidence and understand the research process—from data collection and analysis to literacy and communication—all of which also helps them in the classroom. These experiences also help students gain admission to graduate school and catch the attention of future employers.

The University of Wyoming promotes undergraduate research through a host of programs. The university’s low student-to-faculty ratio allows students easy access to professors and research opportunities. Here, meet four students who share their research experiences. 

Jonet Jennings

Jennings, who will graduate with degrees in international studies and political science and minor in Chinese, chose UW for its study-abroad opportunities. After spending eight weeks in China on a faculty-led trip in 2016, Jennings joined the McNair Scholars Program, which includes an undergraduate research experience.

For her faculty mentor, Jennings was paired with Center for Global Studies Director Jean Garrison, a professor in the School of Politics, Public Affairs and International Studies.

“(Jennings) did great work on community-based approaches to counterterrorism and did fieldwork in the region,” Garrison says. 

“Not many students can say they did undergraduate research, specifically with domestic terrorism,” Jennings says. “I definitely think it’s going to be advantageous for my future plans.”

After completing a master’s program in international studies at UW, Jennings hopes to work for the FBI as an analyst or a special agent.

“I got to talk to a lot of people who work in similar fields with my research,” she says. “It’s set me up and prepared me for that lifestyle.”

Jennings also considers her time in China life-changing: “I was submersed in the culture full time, so my level of Mandarin fluency definitely went up. That I studied in China sets me apart from everyone else when I’m applying for jobs and grad school.”

As an ambassador for UW’s Education Abroad programs, Jennings speaks with students and prospective students about the benefits and joys of studying abroad and the scholarship opportunities.

She appreciates the support offered across campus: “Because it’s a smaller university, we have a lot of one-on-one time with faculty and staff, which is amazing. If I’m struggling with something or I’m not sure what I want to do next, there’s always someone I can go talk to.”

man kneeling on the prairie
Wyoming Research Scholar Lukas Lindquist worked to document climate change impacts on groundwater recharge in big sagebrush ecosystems across the state of Wyoming.

Lukas Lindquist

Instead of getting a job each summer to help pay for school, the Wyoming Research Scholars Program (WRSP) allowed Lindquist, a senior from Nunn, Colo., to conduct funded research for multiple years.  WRSP is a university-wide UW Science Initiative program.

“For his WRSP project, he has worked to document the climate change impacts on groundwater recharge in big sagebrush ecosystems across the state of Wyoming,” says postdoctoral researcher Kyle Palmquist. “His research project utilized a combination of detailed field sampling and soil water simulation modeling to understand changes in groundwater recharge. His work has implications for big sagebrush plant communities and water management in the state of Wyoming.”

Lindquist, who is a dual major in geology and environment and natural resources, says, “The directive was to understand current groundwater recharge rates and how groundwater will change in magnitude and seasonality into the future, projected to the year 2100 using simulation modeling techniques.”

Because the research has global implications, Lindquist received the Center for Global Studies Nielson Undergraduate Scholarship. His research, which is also in collaboration with Professor William Lauenroth, led to a paper currently under review at Western North American Naturalist. During his senior year, he has also worked on a paleobotany research project in Associate Professor Ellen Currano’s lab.

Of the WRSP, he says, “I was exposed to expensive and technical equipment. There’s no way I would have had such access to it without this program. It’s incredible how many doors it opens.”

Thanks in part to the connections he made during his undergraduate research, Lindquist already has a job lined up at the Cheyenne branch of Terracon, a multidisciplinary firm specializing in environmental, facilities, geotechnical and materials services.

Eventually, Lindquist plans to complete a graduate degree. In addition to his research, he has worked in the Department of Botany his entire UW career and participated in Geology Club and intramural sports.

“It’s eye-opening just how much of a community I’ve found at UW,” says Lindquist, whose father also attended UW. “I love this university, and I’m very glad I’ll be graduating from it as a second-generation alumnus.”

woman standing with box of insect specimens
Madison Crawford conducted studies to determine what wind turbine colors insects are most and least attracted to.

Madison Crawford

You may have heard a bit about how wind farms affect birds, but what about their impact on insects? Botany and honors student Madison Crawford of Newcastle, Wyo., set out to study just that as part of her WRSP undergraduate research.

“She spent last summer collecting samples to estimate if insects are attracted to the color of wind turbines,” says Lusha Tronstad, lead invertebrate zoologist with the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database. “She constructed wind turbine mimics of nine different colors and analyzed what color insects were most and least attracted to. Interestingly, white—the color we paint wind turbines in the U.S.—is the most attractive color to insects.”

“The most rewarding aspect of my research has been learning to identify bees to genus and flies to family, as well as how to use computer programs to analyze my data,” says Crawford, who will graduate in 2019. “I think I have been successful in gathering data that shows interesting trends in regards to which wind turbine colors insects are least and most attracted to.”

The experience also helped Crawford cement her passion for plants and insects—a passion she plans to take all the way to graduate school.

In addition to her work with WRSP, Crawford volunteers at the Williams Conservatory, is a member of the Botany and Biology Club and plays on a recreational soccer team.

“The professors and intimate campus experience set UW apart from other colleges,” she says.

Crawford also appreciates Laramie’s proximity to Medicine Bow National Forest: “Being outdoors is important to me and to my research, so I appreciate being able to go into nature without traveling a long distance.”

man touching bank of equipment
Jacob Williams appreciates UW’s state-of-the-art research equipment, including the Mount Moran supercomputer.

Jacob Williams

For Jacob Williams—a chemistry, mathematics and statistics major from Centennial, Wyo.—his undergraduate research began before his first semester, when he spent the summer working in retired chemistry Professor Keith Carron’s lab, studying a chemical measurement technique called Raman spectroscopy.

As member of the WRSP, Williams had the opportunity to explore several areas of research. “WRSP a wonderful resource for aspiring researchers,” he says. “Who doesn’t want a stipend for discovering something new?”

He worked on simulated molecular structures in chemistry Assistant Professor Elliott Hulley’s lab for three semesters and recently began doing mathematical research in discrete tomography. Williams also spent two summers off site through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program—one at the University of North Texas and one at the University of Cincinnati. “Both summers, I studied molecules using computers but from very different perspectives,” he says.
“All of these research experiences have given me invaluable insight into the process of professional science, and they are also likely to lead to my name on published scientific papers.”

In addition to his research, Williams is president of the American Chemical Society student chapter and completed a summer internship with Snowy Range Instruments.

After graduating from UW in 2019, Williams plans to pursue his doctorate in a biochemical field or mathematical area related to biochemistry. “Having some real research under my belt during my undergraduate career will give me a substantial leg up over the competition. UW’s opportunities for undergraduate research are fantastic,” he says, adding that the facilities and equipment are top-notch, including three state-of-the-art NMR spectrometers and access to the Mount Moran supercomputer. 

Undergraduate Research Programs

Here are a few of the many programs supporting undergraduate research at the University of Wyoming.

McNair Scholars Program: Prepares undergraduate students from groups traditionally underrepresented in graduate education for success in doctoral degree programs.

Undergraduate Engineering Scholars Program: As part UW’s Tier-1 Initiative, the College of Engineering and Applied Science accepts a limited number of top high school graduates as scholars. Awardees are given access to opportunities for undergraduate research and one-on-one work with professors.

Wyoming Research Scholars Program: As part of UW Science Initiative, the WRSP pairs talented students with faculty mentors to participate in cutting-edge research as well as to receive stipends and allocations for student travel and research.

Wyoming EPSCoR: Offers undergraduate research fellowships and travel grants for students and sponsors Wyoming Undergraduate Research Day.

INBRE: IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence offers undergraduate research fellowships and travel grants for students in the biomedical fields.

Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium: Offers undergraduate research fellowships, senior engineering design fellowships, NASA summer internships and travel grants.

NSF REU Programs: National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates provide summer research fellowships for students. There are several programs at UW and across the country.

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