Science research program enriching students' experience

PLAINVIEW – When she enrolled in the science research track at Wayland Baptist University, Jennifer Jones expected to become familiar with beakers, test tubes and Bunsen burners. What she didn’t expect was the biggest lesson her summer in research would entail.

“We’ve learned how to accept failure better,” the junior from Artesia, N.M. said with a smile, “and how to work with different people.”

Jones and four other science majors at Wayland have spent the last ten weeks of their summers learning the ins and outs of scientific research, the first such experience offered at the university for exposing science students to real research endeavors.

Made possible in large part by a grant from the Welch Foundation, the summer program offered the students the opportunity to immerse themselves in an actual research project. Then in the fall term, students would follow the project more with additional research and study. Eventually, they would complete a thesis and go through the defense process, much like a master’s level student would.

All this, say Wayland science faculty members Dr. Joel Boyd and Dr. Adam Reinhart, culminates in students having much more exposure to research than a traditional science class can provide. And in terms of applying for graduate study in health professions or in research careers, the two say the experience is invaluable.

“It’s something we strongly encourage, and something that is becoming more and more expected of undergraduate students,” said Boyd, assistant professor of chemistry. “I’ve watched students learn things in the lab that I couldn’t teach them in the classroom.”

Boyd is overseeing a chemistry project with assistance from Jones and Robyn Henderson, a senior from Clayton, N.M. The project deals with removing nitrogen-containing contaminants from water using titanium dioxide and light to convert it to nitrogen gas. The girls showed off several composition notebooks full of notes they had taken during the summer, painstaking details of every step taken in the research. The pair began preliminary study in the spring semester, then have applied what they learned in the laboratory.

Reinhart, associate professor of biological and physical sciences, is overseeing a biochemistry project with help from senior Chancey Thompson of Anchorage, Alaska, senior Kate Pearce of Sublette, Kan., and senior Sheena Shipley of Earth, who is completing the research as part of the Honors Program at Wayland. Their project involves study of the regulation of steroid production and how certain genes are activated or deactivated to produce steroids.

Though the projects are interesting and timely, both professors say the benefit of hands-on lab research is the most important product of the research.

“(Research) made an impact on the way I saw science,” Reinhart recalls. “I learned a lot about creative problem solving and that doesn’t normally happen in a traditional lecture.”

It’s no surprise, then, that his students are learning the same lessons.

“I think we’ve learned a lot about problem solving,” said Pearce. “There’s a lot of trial and error involved and that benefits us in the long run.”

Students shared stories of encountering initial frustration at not seeing the results happen as quickly as they’d planned. During an afternoon break, they commiserated over machine malfunctions, frustrations over perceived failures and general impatience.

But as the summer wound to a close, all admitted they’d learned some major lessons that would benefit them not only in future science-related careers but also in life.

“Our biggest motivation (for the research program) at first was for the graduate school application and experience, but we’re seeing how it will help us in various ways,” Jones said.

Reinhart and Boyd said the program can only get better in the future, and they’ve already seen it have a positive impact on recruiting new students, increasing enrollment in the sciences and entry into successful professional programs. They also know they’ll be turning out a more prepared student once they leave Wayland’s halls.

“Some of my proudest moments are when things don’t work out, but they know why!” Boyd said.