Undergrad research invaluable

Abstracts for the 26th Annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research were due Tuesday. To be held in March, the conference aims to promote and display research done by undergraduate students.

Many students find their projects through their departments. Michele Sanders didn’t while away her summer with frivolous activities. Thanks to a recommendation by one of her professors in the geosciences department, she spent it in the Ashley National Forest doing research with other undergraduate students from across the country.

Sanders, a senior majoring in applied environmental geosciences, is no stranger to the forest, which is located in Vernal, Utah. For the last two years, she has also been participating in an undergraduate research project being done in the area.

Sanders was looking for an opportunity to do research and approached her adviser, Marek Matyjasik, about getting involved. Soon after, she was helping analyze water samples from streams in the Uinta Mountain range. The project started in 2009 and involves using special aerial photography to determine plant life surrounding streams.

“We’re trying to determine if it’s possible to judge water quality depending on the plant life present,” Sanders said.

Although the research was not yet complete, the students and faculty involved took their project to the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America last October and stirred up some interest for their project from various government agencies.

“It’s a huge opportunity to learn more than just in a classroom,” Sanders said. “Actual experience working at a job you want to do makes a huge difference. There is no substitute for on-the-job training.”

Her summer research only added fuel to the fire of Sanders’ passion for environmental geosciences. Sanders spent the summer as a hydrotech taking water samples and checking the health of various streams. The 39-year-old student left her daughter at home with her husband every week for 10 weeks, only coming home on the weekend to participate in the research.

Sanders praised the geosciences department for getting her involved and giving her these opportunities.

“I really can’t say enough about the department,” Sanders said. “It’s like a family. They’re very focused on us. They want us to succeed.”

Suzi Nicholson, secretary for the department, echoed the sentiment.

“If someone wants to be involved, (the professors) will help them every step of the way,” Nicholson said.

Having been interested in geosciences herself as an undergraduate, Nicholson said she jumped at the chance to join the team as secretary three years ago.

Since then, Nicholson has seen many students get involved in undergraduate research opportunities.

“If a student wants to go the extra mile, (the professors) will help them in any way possible,” Nicholson said.

Both she and Sanders said they feel there are a lot of students who don’t know about the possibilities that exist for research.

“The chances are out there; you just need to find them,” Sanders said. “Students need to take advantage of them. There is so much I have learned that I never could have learned in a classroom.”

Although Sanders has only done research in the geosciences department, she said she wants to encourage all students to search for the opportunities open to them.

“I have a hard time believing that any of the other departments are any different,” said Sanders, in reference to the chances she has been given to gain research and field experience.

Sanders advised students to take advantage of the research opportunities available.

“Getting involved in your department can make a huge difference,” she said.