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When Assistant Professor Jenifer Thomas sought undergraduate students to conduct laboratory research at the University of Wyoming School of Nursing, she was overwhelmed by the number of students who responded.
She was not surprised, though, because she had a positive experience as an undergraduate researcher herself, and knows the significant impact it has on the students’ education and career opportunities.
“It is essential to make research opportunities available for undergraduate nursing students, as they are the future of nursing education,” Thomas says. “Providing hands-on research experiences can ignite and maintain the excitement of clinical inquiry and curiosity.”
After reviewing the massive response to her request for undergraduates to conduct research, Thomas selected two nursing juniors and two pre-nursing students for her research team, which was christened the Thomas Lab. The group started meeting in August 2011 and focused on Thomas’ latest project, “Caring for the Pre-diabetic: What do NPs and MDs Recommend?”
“They allow us to take part in the actual research process,” says Terra Harvey of Nekoosa, Wis., one of Thomas’ assistants. “They listen to what we have to say and take our ideas into consideration. They make us feel like we are valuable members of the team.”
Harvey’s statement reflects Thomas’ philosophy that undergraduate students can learn more about the research when working on team projects. She asserts that her undergraduate team can pursue their own questions, a practice that culminated in a poster presentation at the College of Health Sciences Grand Rounds Research Day. They also were invited to present their research at last spring’s Western Institute of Nursing Conference in Portland, Ore.
“Students can refine their teamwork and communication skills, connect with other students who have similar interests, and enhance their resumes,” Thomas says. “Any student who is considering graduate school would benefit from gaining research knowledge and skills.”
Her lab team echoes her ideas. Talisha Hobbs of Laramie says being on the research team is a career-building experience.
“Taking advantage of undergraduate opportunities provides students with a great outlook on the future of health care and the impact of research,” Hobbs says.
Thomas says she mentors students "how I was mentored." Her doctoral experience at the University of Colorado-Denver and post-doctoral advisement at Colorado State University convinced her of the power of a supportive research team. She views research projects as a collaborative process among her whole team. When assigning and prioritizing tasks, she directs the students to engage with the research critically, tackling everything from creative advisement to decision making.
“The team created a fun and comfortable environment as we worked together to achieve results,” Hobbs says. “The research became more than just a task or assignment, and I soon found my desire to continue my involvement with research growing immensely.”
Thomas emphasizes that watching for faculty emails or announcements or seeking out research teams that interest them is a great way for students to get involved. In fact, that’s how the Thomas Lab got its third member, Tori Emerson, from Fort Collins, Colo.
“I decided to become involved because the topic of this research project really interested me in regards to what I want to possibly do as a career,” Emerson says. “I highly recommend other students getting involved in researching a topic that interests them.”
Thomas adds that the team approach helps them build confidence and explore new topics.
The team’s fourth member, Adara Lindt of Monument, Colo., says the biggest advantage in involving undergraduate students in the research process is that they come to value and better understand research.
“Learning how to understand the results of study; analyzing if the results are applicable to your patients’ care; and then learning how to implement the necessary changes, is essential for undergraduate nurses,” Lindt says. “After seeing a project from start to finish, I know I will make the extra effort to stay up-to-date on research studies. That is the best way that I can provide the best care to my future patients.”