NSF Funding Boosts Undergraduate Research Experience in MCD Biology

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A $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support the expansion of the number of faculty-led labs offering course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) in the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and development (MCD) at UC Santa Cruz.

Principal investigator Jeremy Sanford, an MCD professor of biology, started a pilot program in 2017 that provided research experience for 35 students while meeting lab coursework requirements for department majors. The program was interrupted by the pandemic, but is operational again this year. With the new NSF funding, Sanford and co-principal investigator Guido Bordignon plan to create four new faculty-led CURE labs that can accommodate up to 100 students.

“The goal is not just to expand research opportunities for students, but to expand opportunities for students to think of themselves as scientists and to understand science as a tool and an approach to solving problems. rather than a set of facts to learn,” Sanford said.

This is especially helpful for students from underrepresented groups or who are the first members of their family to attend college, said Bordignon, MCD biology teaching professor. Longitudinal studies of student cohorts show performance disparities related to ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors, especially in large lecture classes. But these disparities are much smaller in lab classes, and CURE Labs can help close the gap even further.

“By allowing students to take ownership of a research project, it gives a strong boost to their ‘scientific identity’ and can help bridge the equity gap,” Bordignon said. “It allows them to work closely with a professor, who is now someone next to them in the lab, not only to teach but also to chat with them, so that students get to know their professor better and it gives them more confidence.”

Sanford noted that each faculty member brings their own perspective and research questions to classes, so students work on projects related to their professor’s research program. “The students feel like they’re contributing something important, and it’s also exciting for the professor when you can expand your research group by 20 or 30 brains,” he said. “Some of their ideas may be naive, but you can see their enthusiasm and see them progress, so it’s really rewarding and energizing.”

“It’s a win-win for everyone involved, including the teaching assistants, who are supporting the class in a research project,” Bordignon added.

The program will include assessments of student progress and examine their impact on student achievement, including retention and graduation rates. “This type of evidence-based teaching can be transformative,” Bordignon said.

Sanford said the partnership with Bordignon is important because, as a teaching professor, Bordignon brings expertise in pedagogy that Sanford does not have. “The idea of ​​aligning teaching and research is a major strength of this program, and fulfilling the requirements of the major does not increase the workload,” Sanford said.

Another part of the program will focus on developing partnerships with Silicon Valley biotech companies to provide summer internships for students. Internships will not only provide additional research experience, but also networking opportunities that can help students in their careers after graduation.

The pilot program was funded by a donation from UCSC alumnus George Kraw, as well as campus support for the renovation of lab space at Thimann Laboratories. The new funding comes from NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) program, which aims to improve undergraduate STEM education, expand STEM participation, and build capacity in Hispanic institutions.

“We were able to leverage donor support to start developing the program,” Sanford said. “By increasing the number of labs over the next three years, we will get a lot of data on student success. The goal is to use this data to demonstrate the value of the program and gain additional support to implement it more widely. The idea of ​​being able to offer ten CURE labs is not crazy. We have increased the number of MCD teachers, and I think we can do that.

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