The Research CURE
Natural Sciences Faculty Nurture Budding Researchers in Class, at Conference
By Laura Wagner
For all their diversity of thought and approach, UHD faculty have one trait in common: They continually look for ways to enrich the learning process for students.
Case in point: Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experiences, or CUREs. Natural Sciences faculty Dr. Adriana Visbal, Dr. Michael Tobin, Dr. Yuan Yuan “Connie” Kang, and Dr. Courtney Standlee were determined to expand undergraduate research opportunities in the Natural Sciences for students. That led them to CUREs.
As the name suggests, CUREs offer an in-class approach to undergraduate research that has been shown to be as valuable for students as traditional mentored research (where students work one-on-one with a faculty member on the faculty’s research). While mentored research is known to be highly effective for students, CUREs offers a complementary approach that’s scalable and requires no extra time outside the classroom.
“Many of our students don’t have spare time for activities beyond attending class,” Visbal explained. “They have child-care or family responsibilities, they have work. We’re trying to give them the opportunity to do authentic research as part of the curriculum,
so there’s no extra time commitment.”
The group’s goal was also to create an antidote to the cookie-cutter, follow-the-lab-manual method often seen with in-class research. “Historically, students get assigned a lab and follow the instructions—even though they already know how it turns out—then they write a boring report that they don’t want to write, and faculty don’t want to read,” said Visbal. “With CUREs, we wanted to bring back the unknown, the mystery, the inquiry into the lab—to have the students work on a real research question that they were excited about, something professors would actually pursue in their labs.”
After initial training in CUREs funded by Faculty Development grants, Visbal and Tobin recruited Kang to start offering upper-level CURE courses in the NS Department and formed a Teaching Circle to guide their work. They later expanded their efforts and continued the Teaching Circle with Standlee and other NS faculty (Drs. Elda Rueda, Kenneth Johnson, and Pablo Delclos). They ultimately established CURE options in histology, ecology, developmental biology, and neuroscience. “We want to get as many faculty as possible involved to bring more classes into the program,” said Standlee, who is currently converting a parasitology course to the CURE approach.
Proving the Concept
The group introduced CUREs at UHD, and impressed with the outcomes of their students’ research efforts, they committed to taking CUREs students along with students involved in traditional mentored research to the Texas Academy of Science Annual Conference at Angelo State University in March.
“The conference is a way to prove to the students the quality of the work they’re doing,” explained Visbal. “Our students don’t have a lot of experience at conferences, and we wanted to build their confidence in their excellent work.” Because TAS is a small conference, Visbal noted, it’s a safe environment where students can learn the ins and outs of representing themselves and defending their research to an audience, which can be intimidating.
Armed with grant funding from the Impact Learning Office (ILO) and the support of the Scholars Academy and College of Sciences and Technology (CST) leadership, the students caught a ride with Scholars Academy members and other UHD student researchers in the Scholars Academy van, and they were on their way.
Showing Gator Quality
After arriving at TAS, the students presented their posters and gave oral presentations on their work. For most, it was their first time to go on such a trip, and the experience was eye-opening. (For the full roster of students who attended and presented, see table at bottom.)
“TAS was a great opportunity for students to present the results of their dedicated efforts in the laboratory,” said Tobin. “Communication is such an integral part of the overall scientific process. The trip to TAS gave students the chance to discuss their research with fellow undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty throughout the conference.”
For Visbal, Kang, Tobin, and Standlee, the conference was “fantastic.” They were thrilled with the students’ performance, said Visbal. “Two CURE students won awards, but the most important outcome was the confidence-building provided by the conference experience and all the interactions involved. We could not have been more proud of our students.”
Beyond their presentations, the students showed their quality by competing in Science Jeopardy! “They just nailed the science questions one after another,” Visbal reported, adding, “They made an impact. A lot of people at the conference didn’t know who UHD was, but they know now—they saw that Gator Pride and excellence.”
One of the CURE students, Jennifer Rodriguez, was approached by a professor from another university after her presentation. “He told her, ‘Jenny, you have what it takes for graduate school. You need to apply’,” Visbal related. “That kind of external validation is priceless.” Rodriguez went on to present her poster at Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol as well as at the Annual UHD Scholars Academy Student Research Conference, something Visbal says she would not have had the confidence to do before going to TAS. (Download her poster from the Downloads box, top right.)
Another UHD student, Joel Delgado, who had recently been accepted into graduate school at UT-San Antonio, came face to face with the department director of his soon-to-be university home. The professor sought him out at the conference to talk with him about his research. “It was such a validating moment for him, to talk with the head of his new department about his research at a professional conference!” said Kang.
The group agreed the experience provided other benefits as well. The van ride to and from the conference proved to be a bonding experience for all the students. “We were so gratified to see how these students—who didn’t know each other for the most part before the trip—supported each other. Whether it was sharing Advil or ideas on dealing with first-gen parents, or helping out a student with a disability, all of these individuals came together in the most impressive way,” said Visbal.
Standlee agreed, adding, “The most surprising thing was how beneficial the trip was beyond the research aspect. I left TAS thinking how much more approachable science was for the students who attended, how barriers were lowered for their future applications to grad school and future conference presentations because of their participation in this conference.” She also noted it was beneficial for her as a faculty member as well. “As a junior faculty member, I learned a lot—mainly that I already have students who have research worthy of a poster. I just need to enable their engagement and encourage participation in conferences like TAS.”
Another of the intangible benefits the group described are the faculty and student interactions, which tend to be more relaxed. Kang noted students took the chance to connect with her on personal challenges when they went for ice cream. “They asked for advice about dealing with parents who have dreams for you that are not your dreams. We talked about how to change your path to what you want versus what your parents want for you. This is the kind of topic they would not normally raise in class.”
On the way home, the group stopped at a park. “I looked over and all these stressed-out students were playing a game of pickup basketball and swinging on the swings and laughing. It was just lovely to watch,” Visbal remembered. “My colleagues and I have all been in settings where competition is more important than collegiality. To see these students approach this event the way they did—as supporters of each other versus competitors—it was truly inspiring.”
She took the opportunity at the park to emphasize the truly important aspects of the trip. “I told them we were so proud of all their achievements, not just the students who won the awards, but all of them for putting their work out there,” Visbal said. “And that we were especially proud of the networking, the camaraderie, and the support they showed each other. That’s something we can’t teach them—a life skill that will serve them forever, personally and professionally.”
Full circle back to UHD faculty seeking ways to enrich the learning process: adding CUREs as an option for undergraduate research at UHD is providing another opportunity for transformative experiences that are changing students’ lives.
Fifteen Natural Sciences students traveled to TAS; some CURE students and some who were involved in traditional mentored research efforts. Two CURE students won awards for their presentations (one had a single semester of a CURE class; one continued independent research after a CURE class). Many of the students graduated in May 2023 and several are considering graduate school or medical school, extending their path in the sciences.
|Student Name||Faculty Mentor||Poster or Oral Presentation||TAS Title|
|Ha Do||M. Bowden||Poster||Expressing the recombinant C-terminus fragment of PilA from Myxococcus xanthusSA|
|Omar Khan||M. Bowden||Poster|
|Evelyn Martinez||Y. Kang||Poster||Sleep and alcohol sensitivity/rapid tolerance in Drosophila melanogaster|
|Joel Delgado||Y. Kang||Poster|
|Carlina Schubert||M. Tobin||Poster||Functional leaf traits associated with minimum leaf conductance in multiple grass species|
|Hatoon Badawi||M. Tobin||Poster||Variability of traits conferring drought tolerance in prairie grasses along a precipitation gradient|
|Ragad Abu Alteen||M. Tobin||Poster|
|Rachel Colorado||M. Tobin||Poster|
|Emily Fritsche||A. Visbal||Poster||Knockdown of arginine kinase gene in Drosophila melanogaster eyes yields abnormal eye phenotypes|
|Melissa Maldonado||A. Visbal||Poster|
|Kennedi Landry||A. Visbal||Poster|
|Karina Romero||A. Visbal||Poster|
|Jennifer Rodriguez (award winner)||A. Visbal||Poster||Abnormalities in D. Melanogaster eye development observed through the down regulation of the Dor gene under the Gal4-UAS system|
|Huda Omar Alchikh (award winner)||Y. Kang||Oral presentation||Investigating the difference of locomotive behaviors in D. simulans, D. sechellia, and their interspecies lines|
|Jude Campbell||R. Sadana||Oral presentation||Arylidene-hydrazinyl-thiazole analogs induce apoptosis in cancer cell lines and exhibit the potential to be novel anticancer agents|
For more information on CUREs, contact Dr. Adriana Visbal at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support CUREs and other high-impact learning efforts by donating online. Specify the Office of Impact Learning in the notes field.