Shepherding Student Research

UW encourages undergraduate research across disciplines to increase learning as well as improve graduate school and career prospects.

By Micaela Myers

From genotyping mice to sampling isotope data from streams to studying ADHD in adults, University of Wyoming students across campus participate in exciting undergraduate research projects. These projects offer numerous benefits to students. Through hands-on learning, students better understand course material, concepts and research done by others. They also gain valuable skills and resume boosters for graduate school and career. In addition, students conducting undergraduate research benefit from mentors as they work side by side with graduate students and professors.

“I feel that my research experience has provided me with a vast amount of knowledge that I would not have received in the classroom,” says Karly Higgins, a senior biology major from Lindsay, Calif. “I am a hands-on learner, and getting to take concepts I have learned in lectures and apply them to real research has not only solidified the concepts in my mind but enhanced their meaning in the real world. This experience has also allowed me to frame my mind like a researcher and given me many tools that will be helpful in graduate school as well as help me stand out among other applicants.”

UW encourages undergraduate research opportunities through a number of programs across colleges. These programs provide funding and opportunities for students to share the results of their work. Below you’ll meet seven undergraduates undertaking a variety of research pursuits.

Karly Higgins, senior, biology

woman working in a lab
Karly Higgins discovered a love for research at UW and now plans to pursue her Ph.D.

“I think that if I had not come to UW, I may not have discovered my passion for research,” says Higgins, who transferred from the University of California–Irvine in 2014. “UW has such easy access to research opportunities for undergraduates that I feel is very unique. In coming from a much larger California school, I do not think that I would have had anywhere near the opportunities there as I have had here.”

Higgins has worked on a number of research projects, all funded through various programs at UW. She began as a lab tech when animal science Assistant Professor Wei Guo invited her to genotype mice in his lab, and she presented the results at Wyoming Undergraduate Research Day in 2015. She then moved on to a histological analysis on mice skeletal tissue and presented those results at the annual Wyoming INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) conference. Hungry for more, she began research on the isolation of the protein titin, also known as connectin, which is responsible for the elasticity of muscle in humans.

“At this point, I knew I had a burning desire to continue my career as a researcher into graduate school, and so I joined the McNair Scholars Program, which provided summer funding for this project,” Higgins says, adding that she then presented the results at the McNair Symposium at University of California–Berkeley.

Higgins is now working in botany Professor Katie Wagner’s lab on research centered on hybridization patterns in Wyoming trout. She will graduate in May 2017 and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in marine science.

“In addition to the wonderful faculty at UW, the programs for undergraduates are also a great help,” Higgins says. “With the McNair Scholars Program, INBRE and Undergraduate Research Day, students are provided with great opportunities and encouragement for research.”

When not in the lab, you can find Higgins outdoors. “I love the easy access to outdoor activities that Laramie provides,” she says. “Going up to the Snowy Range or even for a quick hike in Curt Gowdy State Park are the best stress releases possible.”

Phil Klebba, graduated December 2016, rangeland ecology and watershed management, and environment and natural resources

mud splattered man outdoors
Phil Klebba conducted research and worked for the Wyoming Conservation Corps during his time at UW. (Courtesy Photo)

Phil Klebba of Sheridan, Wyo., created a uniquely Wyoming college experience—one that included studying isotope data in the lab and working summers for the Wyoming Conservation Corps, where he tagged bats at Devils Tower and tested prairie dogs for black-footed ferret reintroduction.

“With the conservation corps, I got to see some awesome things like a herd of elk running through mist and a group of jackrabbits bouncing through a field—lots of amazing experiences,” Klebba says of his time outdoors.

“Everyone looks for research if you go to graduate school or into any science-related job,” he says. Klebba believes the combination of undergraduate research and the WCC gives him a leg up: “Research helps you sharpen your mind, and WCC ramps up your work ethic.”

Klebba’s project supported by Wyoming EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) involved studying isotope data from 10 sampling points of four streams in the Snowy Range. “I also worked with the hydrograph data trying to figure out different contributions to flow—how much of it is coming from soil water versus direct snowmelt and precipitation,” he says. “Isotopes are a way to check it.”

Undergraduate researchers learn that real-world problems are not as straightforward as classroom problems. “It’s interesting because class problems are always set up with a pretty clean answer, and then you get out there, and it’s messy,” says Klebba, who was awarded the Trustees’ Scholars Award when he came to UW.

Klebba is currently applying to graduate schools and recommends UW to future students based on opportunities, affordability, quality and location. “Affordability is great, and UW is a top college,” he says. “If you like the outdoors, Laramie is great. We have two mountain ranges within 30 minutes.”

Darbi Schlenker, freshman, English/pre-med

woman standing at a railing
Darbi Schlenker believes her undergraduate research experience will help give her a leg up for medical school.

Growing up in Meeteetse, Wyo., Darbi Schlenker participated in the Wyoming State Science Fair and represented Wyoming twice at the International Science and Engineering Fair. As a senior in high school, she took home first place in the Wyoming State Science Fair senior Engineering Design and Innovation division, receiving a special first-time award from the Wyoming Research Scholars Program. Part of UW’s Science Initiative, the Wyoming Research Scholars Program pairs undergraduate students with faculty mentors to participate in cutting-edge funded research as early as their first year. She also received the UW Trustees’ Scholars Award.

“I was accepted into Brown University, and I was highly inclined to take the Ivy League opportunity,” Schlenker says. “Ultimately, however, UW’s facilities, scholarships and academic opportunities, and the environment of the school helped me decide to come to UW.”

Schlenker’s ultimate goal is to become a doctor, and she believes the Wyoming Research Scholars Program will give her valuable new skills and opportunities.

“UW’s facilities are amazing,” Schlenker says. “Compared to the many other schools I toured, even the Ivy Leagues could not compare to the buildings and laboratories at UW.”

She finds Laramie the perfect location for a college town. “The surrounding area of Laramie is beautiful and offers cool outdoor activities I have really enjoyed over the past semester,” Schlenker says. “Also, I like that more urban areas are only a short drive away.

“Ultimately, I would definitely recommend UW to any student who is considering it,” she says. “I feel very lucky to have been able to stay in Wyoming and still attend such a great school.”

Anna Garner, senior, psychology and sociology

woman holding a stack of books
Anna Garner worked in two different labs at UW and presented her work at a national conference in New York City.

Conducting research in UW’s psychology labs is giving Anna Garner of Afton, Wyo., the experience she needs to pursue her Ph.D. in psychology.

At the Attention and Learning Laboratory, Garner helps study ADHD in emerging adults, while at the Social Cognition Laboratory, they’re studying implicit association (unconscious bias) in juries. Garner presented a poster of her research at the annual convention of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies in New York.

“I’m doing my senior thesis in that lab on the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition) and how wording changes have affected symptom endorsement rates,” Garner says. “I want to go to graduate school, and research is one of the biggest factors in admittance. The experience has given me practice running lab procedures and working with participants on studies and doing it in a standardized way. I’ve also gotten a lot of experience in statistical analysis, which is not something you usually get before graduate school. Being able to go to that conference and network and meet people who might be at my interviews was really big, too.”

Garner also finds time for other involvement at UW, including the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Mortar Board senior honors organization, Psi Chi International Honor Society in Psychology, Psychology Club and being a member of the student affairs student advisory board.

She lists Psi Chi as one of her most meaningful activities, in large part due to the caring advisers. Garner appreciates UW’s passionate faculty members across the board: “I feel like here they care so much about their students, and they’re so willing to take the time to work with you outside of the classroom and do anything they can to make you exceptional.”

Garner also appreciates UW’s affordability. “You’re going to get a world-class education, and at the price, that’s a huge steal,” she says. “I feel like this place is what made me who I am as a person. I feel like here you’ll get pushed, and that’s great. That’s the thing I’ve found that I really appreciate.”

Finley McIlwaine, sophomore, mechanical engineering

man holding up handfuls of dead vegetation
An Engineering Undergraduate Research Scholar, Finley McIlwaine conducts research into advanced combustion technologies as part of the Belmont Energy Research Group.

As part of the Tier-1 Engineering Initiative, a number of top high school graduates are offered funded and mentored research as part of the Engineering Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Finley McIlwaine of Cheyenne, Wyo., is one of the current scholars and had his choice of labs to work in. He chose to be a part of mechanical engineering Assistant Professor Erica Belmont’s Belmont Energy Research Group.

“We do research into advanced combustion technologies and flame analysis,” McIlwaine says. For example, one of the projects he’s working on investigates energy alternatives for villages in Haiti.

“I went to a job fair this semester, and all the companies I talked to were very impressed that I’d been involved at that scale already,” he says. In addition to the research opportunities, McIlwaine says UW goes above and beyond to help students in their career search: “UW is different in what they do to help you find a job. We get a lot of emails about job fairs and internships and job openings. I think companies like UW graduates.”

McIlwaine also finds that the faculty members go out of their way to help students. “The professors are unreal in their willingness to help students,” he says. 

To balance out his heavy academic load, McIlwaine plays intramural sports including basketball and soccer. “I try to get out to Happy Jack Recreational Area and Curt Gowdy State Park as often as I can,” he adds. “I like to hike, mountain bike and snowboard—basically anything that gets me outside being active.

“Another thing I like about UW and Laramie is the people and the environment—everybody is so friendly, and the small-town vibe really adds a sense of community to the university,” he says.

McIlwaine highly recommends UW: “The price mixed with the opportunities, professors and resources can’t be beat.”

Cameron Sloan, graduated December 2016, energy resource management and development

man sitting at a table outdoors
Cameron Sloan (far left) served as a counselor during UW’s Energy Summer Institute. (Courtesy Photo)

Cameron Sloan of Cheyenne, Wyo., plans to put his undergraduate research skills to use in the environmental science field. “I feel that my research will help to show employers that I am able to balance a busy schedule and that I have the ability to effectively communicate, work in a team as well as work independently, and work with a variety of different audiences,” Sloan said just after graduation.

“My undergraduate research was very beneficial to reinforcing what I have learned through my classes,” Sloan says. “I did research on environmental issues such as water tracking and classification using remote sensing and geographical information systems (GIS). From my research experiences as an undergraduate, I was able to learn how to use the software that is relevant in the environmental field of study and energy industry, to critically think and problem solve, and to find ways to improve what we currently know.”

After his first summer of research, Sloan presented his findings at GIS in the Rockies and the Western Planner Conference in 2015. He continued undergraduate research and presented a poster and presentation at the Wyoming Undergraduate Research Day in 2016.

“Eventually I will look into pursuing further education in graduate school, and this research will aid in my transition to things such as developing and working on a thesis,” Sloan says. “Because I was able to work on my research during the entire year, I have experience in balancing coursework and research, which can also prove to be helpful for a graduate school setting.”

Sloan also participated in the School of Energy Resources club, the Restoration Outreach and Restoration club, the Order of Omega Greek leadership honor society and intramural sports. He cites his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, as one of his most meaningful college experiences.

“Through my time in SigEp, I was given many opportunities for leadership positions within the chapter, and through those positions I learned how to be a better man and a better brother,” Sloan says. “In addition, I had a constant support structure made of like-minded individuals who also had my best interest in heart. Since my freshman year, I was exposed to community involvement and the impact that it can have in a small community such as Laramie.”

Sloan says that those leadership opportunities, along with UW’s diversity and caring faculty members, set it apart. “I do not think that I would have received the attention and opportunities that I did anywhere else,” he says. “Attending UW offers an indelible experience through interactions with the professors and the involvement of campus organizations that allows for you to create a custom experience to best pursue your career goals. The people here genuinely care about you and your success. I think that that is pretty hard to find.”

Hannah Jernigan, senior, biology with minors in wildlife and fisheries biology management and horticulture

woman outdoors wearing winter hat, coat and mittens
When not conducting research, Hannah Jernigan enjoys hiking, snowboarding, kayaking and snowshoeing in the nearby mountains.

Hannah Jernigan of Cheyenne, Wyo., began undergraduate research at Sheridan College and has found continued success at UW. “My end goal is to be a research biologist, so any type of research I can get my hands on and opportunities I can take advantage of help me out tremendously,” she says.

Jernigan began her research as a Wyoming INBRE (IDeA Networks for Biomedical Research Excellence) intern in the summer of 2014. As part of the National Science Foundation Community College Innovation Challenge, she worked on a project optimizing the genetic engineering of algae for biofuel. The project took her all the way to Washington, D.C., where she presented it on Capitol Hill.

From there, she began working with horticulture Assistant Professor Sadanand Dhekney at the Sheridan Research and Extension Center. “The lab is amazing,” Jernigan says. “I was a genetics technician and did a project on weevil resistance in alfalfa, then novel phenotypes in tobacco using anthocyanin.”

Transferring to UW, Jernigan received INBRE’s Transition Fellowship and did a rotation through several different labs. In the summer of 2016, she presented at the Society for In Vitro Biology’s international conference in San Diego, which she describes as a wonderful experience.

“Last summer, I applied for an EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research) grant and received it,” Jernigan says. “We’re finishing that up, and this spring we’re going to look
at selecting different phenotypes in grapes.”

Jernigan believes that UW’s dedicated faculty and staff members are what set the university apart: “UW genuinely cares about its students and how they perform. They want them to exceed in every possible way.”

In addition to her research, Jernigan has a part-time job, plays intramural sports and is a member of the Wildlife Society student chapter. She encourages prospective students to come for a campus visit:
“I definitely think it will make your mind up when you see UW and how awesome it is.”

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