UNC campuses stress importance of undergraduate research

Growing up and going to school in his native Germany, Olav Rueppell learned in a system that encouraged students to get hands-on experience by working in labs.

So it’s not too surprising that Rueppell, a professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, encourages his students to get into the lab and begin conducting their own research as soon as possible.

“Research is usually a forum for PhDs and postdoctoral students. I think it’s never too early for students to start in a lab. But younger students need more help,” said Rueppell, whose work focuses on honeybees.

For his efforts, Rueppell was recognized in November as the 2015 Mid-Career Mentoring Award from the Biology Division of the Council of Undergraduate Research (CUR), a national award given by an organization that stresses the importance of students conducting their own research projects.

“For what I have been doing, it’s nice to see that recognition,” Rueppell said.

Chris Brown, vice president for research and graduate education for the 17-campus University of North Carolina, said that for the first time, all 16 institutions of higher education in the system are part of CUR and will see some membership savings as a result.

 “The system-wide membership represents a holistic approach to undergraduate research, scholarship, and creativity that will improve educational opportunities for students across the state while preserving the individual strengths of each campus,” Brown said. “This achievement illustrates our campuses' commitment to supporting undergraduate research and increasing collaboration and efficiency within the system. Plus it saves money for each campus!"

Lee Phillips, director of the undergraduate research, scholarship and creativity office at UNCG, said CUR is a professional organization that’s dedicated to faculty development.

“The results are sometimes subtle, as with any professional organization like a university,” he said. “There are several faculty members who are engaged through CUR and give back to the professional development aspect of it. It really promotes the engagement of students through research and research skills development in and out of the classroom.”

Phillips said CUR’s origins began at UNC Asheville in 1978 as a collaboration among chemistry professors to encourage undergraduate students to do more research. The organization grew into other campuses and into other scientific disciplines over the years. It held its first National Council of Undergraduate Research, or NCUR, at Colgate University in 1985, and will hold its 30th annual conference in early 2016 at UNCA.






CUR has five strategic pillars:

  • Integrating and building undergraduate research into curriculum and coursework.
  • Assessment of the impact of undergraduate research.
  • Diversity and inclusion in undergraduate research.
  • Innovation and collaboration in undergraduate research.
  • Internationalization and undergraduate research.

Over the years, CUR has moved beyond the sciences. For example, Melody Chandler, who graduated from Western Carolina University last spring, presented a literary analysis of the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” at last year’s conference at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington, one of three WCU students to attend.

To prepare for the conference, Chandler worked with her mentor, Brent Kinser, who serves as director of literature at WCU. Chandler wanted to present on the poem’s main female character, and Kinser helped her prepare an abstract to submit to NCUR. Once she was accepted, Kinser gave feedback on Chandler’s paper which was presented at the conference.

“I had never really presented anything before, and I never would have been able to do it without him,” Chandler said. “It was awesome for me as part of professional development. I was able to meet people with the same major who had similar goals. Traveling there was very educational. With the one-on-one with the professor, I was able to glean a lot from him.”

Kinser said he’s had 14 students present at NCUR over the past five years.

“It’s a great experience for them,” he said. “They develop the experience of doing in-depth research. It builds their confidence level and raises the level of their discourse with the public expression of their work. That has a tremendous amount of value, interacting with students with similar interests.”

Rueppell said he mentors about eight to 10 undergraduates every year. Sometimes, they’ll approach him with ideas, while other times, he’ll give them an idea for their research projects.

“It depends on the student,” he said. “Typically, I’m giving them ideas when they are starting out.”

Phillips said that for undergraduates who engage in research, the benefits go far beyond the presentation they are making.

“The fundamental belief is that students who are involved in undergraduate research stick around, and they develop skills such as the ability to think critically and solve complex problems and communicate effectively in both written and oral fashion,” he said. “They also learn how to work as a member of a team, which is common in many disciplines, as well as understand different perspectives. Students retain content knowledge a whole lot better when they’ve gone through this process of understanding how the knowledge is developed.”


Written by Phillip Ramati