• Podcast
  • Sep 07 2017

Explore, Engage, Emerge: The Office of Undergraduate Research

Undergraduate students are leaving a lasting mark on research and scholarship at the University of Kentucky.

This past year, UK journalism students teamed up with students in the College of Pharmacy's Rho Chi Honor Society to produce two public service announcements regarding a life-saving tool for drug overdose, naloxone, which was developed by UK researchers. These PSAs aired, in English and Spanish, on the Lexington Public Access Channel, UK Student News Network, local network stations, movie theatres and radio stations.

Last month, a group of UK College of Engineering undergrads, with funding from NASA Kentucky, witnessed the launch of their 7.5-inch diameter re-entry capsule to test heat shield technology developed here at UK. The capsule could solve practical problems like sending samples back to Earth or launching and testing new instruments in space.

These are just two examples of the breadth and depth of UK research and the unique opportunities undergrads have to be part of the discovery process. The Office of Undergraduate Research is here to help students get started.

In this podcast Phil Kraemer, the Chellgren Chair for Undergraduate Excellence, shares how his office can connect students with research mentors, support research travel and provide opportunities to present their work at Posters-at-the-Capitol, the Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars, and the National Conference of Undergraduate Research.

Kraemer says, “The University of Kentucky is quite fortunate to have outstanding researchers and scholars, and to put them in one-on-one connection with a very talented undergraduate, it can be transformative."

To learn more, visit www.uky.edu/chellgren/undergraduate-research

VO: Today we’ll meet Phil Kraemer, the Chellgren chair for undergraduate excellence. He shares how the Office of Undergraduate Research can help connect faculty mentors with undergrads.

Phil Kraemer: I’ve been here a number of decades. I started as an assistant professor and went through the ranks to professor, and then (as my colleagues would describe it) I lost my way because I inclined toward administration. And so I was a department chair, I was the dean of Undergraduate Studies, and also that associate provost for undergraduate education. And during that part of my career, is when I helped develop the Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence, which is due to a very generous gift from Mr. Paul Chellgren that was matched by state funding at the time. I had also already started in collaboration with the vice president from research at the time of the Office of Undergraduate Research. Proudly, I think we’re one of the very first research Universities to have an actual Office of Undergraduate Research. The Chellgren Center in general has the mission of trying to help the University develop we call undergraduate excellence, and we have a number of very influential programs. With the Chellgren Center, we’re trying to provide that kind of support for undergraduate excellence that is outside of any one college. In terms of the early constellation of programs that were a part of the Center, the Office of Undergraduate Research was probably the most important because of where it really sits in this institution. It represents the two primary missions of the University: research and scholarship, but also undergraduate education. So it’s part of the Center now. It is one of two main offices. The other is the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards where we try to work with our very best students to prepare them to compete for Rhodes, Marshall, Goldwater scholarships, NSF, and the undergraduate research program works very collaboratively with the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards. And with programing that comes out of the Chellgren Center, that includes the work of some individual faculty. We have Chellgren endowed professors in addition to my role as Chellgren chair.

VO: So more broadly, why should students consider undergraduate research and why is UK a great place for them to gain that research experience?

Phil Kraemer: Yes, and this is one that really touches my passions as an educator. In the late nineties, there was a very influential report (the Boyer Report on reform of undergraduate education) at research universities. And the theme of that report was that research universities have unusual strengths unlike liberal arts colleges, unlike comprehensive universities, and community colleges. Research university is really deeply committed to scholarship in all areas and the idea was, “Well, we should be able to leverage that on behalf of undergraduates.” So in essence, the goal was to try to entwine the research mission with the undergraduate teaching mission and I just have done it throughout my career. As a psychologist, my colleagues and I have depended on and worked with undergraduates in huge numbers. I think it has been something that has been well tried and tested in a number of disciplines, biology, chemistry, and it’s broadening out now more into the humanities. But it’s really something that can occur in any discipline. The University of Kentucky is quite fortunate to have some outstanding scholars, and to put them in one-on-one connection with a very talented undergraduate, it can be transformative. Some of the students that have gone the furthest (and we track our own alumni in the Chellgren Center), they continue to tell us it was that research mentor that really made the difference, put them on a different path, supported them differently, gave them opportunities they never would have had.

VO: What kind of support does the Office of Undergraduate Research provide for students?

Phil Kraemer: Sure. What we’re trying to do is serve as a vehicle for the entire University. To help promote the idea of undergraduate research, work collaboratively with colleges, departments, with faculty, and with students. So one of the functions is to provide guidance and information about what is undergraduate research, so we hold information sessions and we visit departments. We go anywhere that anyone wants us to tell them about the good things that happen with undergraduate research, but we also manage a number of programs that can support our students regardless of their college affiliation. We provide travel funds so that if a student working with a faculty member gets a project accepted at a national conference, we’ll help defray some of the travel costs. We also recruit students to participate in a number of important conferences. One is more local. It’s in Kentucky. It’s called Posters-at-the-Capitol where many of our students from all of the public universities convene on Frankfort. And in the capital building itself, they present posters and it’s a very good way for the legislators to recognize higher education, and it’s a great opportunity for our students to begin to learn the skill of being able to describe their research to non-experts. Then there’s something that’s very large. It’s called National Conference of Undergraduate Research. We’ve actually hosted it here twice. It is a major conference for undergraduates doing research in any field. We provide travel support for students etc. And then the big event for UK, is we have the Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars. Each spring we invite students to present their research usually in a poster format. It’s a very large event. It’s grown precipitously over the years and it’s a very grand opportunity to celebrate both what undergraduates are doing, but also what our faculty are doing. And for example, we do support summer grants for students and it’s a competitive process, but I think students need to really begin to take responsibility for advancing their own careers. So, we hope that they (at some point in their career) consider applying for some of these grants. And I want to mention that all of these programs (it goes back to the origins of our Office of Undergraduate Research) it is a collaboration between those in administration roles and undergraduate education and our Vice President for Research currently, with Dr. Lisa Cassis, we’re looking for new ways to expand the centralized effort that simply supports the work that’s being done out there in the trenches, so to speak, by our faculty and getting our students to be aware of just how that matters to their education.

VO: UK is a large place, and I imagine being a new undergrad here and trying to make a one-on-one connection with a research mentor could be challenging. How do you help students with that?

Phil Kraemer: We go to a lot of different venues. For example, we have a course for first-year students (UK 101). We often make presentations there. We also hold information sessions throughout the year and we advertise these quite broadly, but we will go any place at any time to try to inform students about these opportunities. And quite honestly with the first-year student, they are rather overwhelmed and what we discover is it takes at least a semester or a year to really become comfortable enough to begin to explore these opportunities. But, fortunately, we’ve got a lot of individuals who are now working to really advance this particular programming within a number of our colleges now. Students hear about this early on, and it’s a very collaborative effort. But it is one of those that are called, “High impact practices.” So that if you look at the kinds of things that matter to students, what are the kinds of experiences that help them academically, help retain students, help them persist to graduation, undergraduate research is at the top of the list.

VO: If a researcher is interested in mentoring students, can they reach out to you?

Phil Kraemer: Absolutely. And that’s a very important point that we had, you know, students can walk in they get guidance. We’ve got some very talented staff. Evie Russell and Bessie Guerrant are two professionals that are available to work with students to inform them about what undergraduate research is, to tell them about the various programs. But on the other side, it’s important for faculty to know that we are looking to help them find mentees, especially for our younger faculty, new faculty here, I think it’s a very good resource. We hope to be developing some more sophisticated searchable web-based materials that will easily allow students to explore who possible mentors are, but also with mentors to really begin to advertise the kinds of students they’re looking for. Because quite honestly, with these amazing facilities we have at UK with the Medical Center and, say, the College of Engineering, we have just amazing laboratories that can become teaching venues. But many of those particular settings require that students be at a particular level of advancement, let’s say. So we try to work with faculty to find the kinds of students that are best suited for their particular situation.

VO: What’s the best way for students to get in touch with your office?

Phil Kraemer: The best way is to get on the UK website and look for the Chellgren Center for Undergraduate Excellence, and then off of that page you’ll find the Office of Undergraduate Research and it details a lot of useful information. It talks about many of the things we’ve already talked about: how to find a mentor, what some of the programs are that we support. The office itself is located in room 211 of the Funkhouser Building and it is a walk-in operation, so students can feel very comfortable popping in there. They can certainly come and see me. I’m right next door of the Chellgren Center. My office is attached to the Office of Undergraduate Research. And another good place to begin to learn more about this is really working with the faculty who are teaching their courses. Their advisors, maybe a director of undergraduate studies. There are a lot of ways that they can get access to the kind of information they need to determine how they’re going to go about their undergraduate research.