UK Undergrads Earn Unparalleled Research Experience as ‘First Authors’
As a Research I institution, the University of Kentucky offers its students opportunities to engage in research across all disciplines — and those opportunities aren’t just reserved for graduate and doctoral students.
Many undergraduates participate in research alongside UK’s world-class faculty, with the support of programs like the UK Office for Undergraduate Research, the Chellgren Student Fellows program and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP). This high impact learning experience allows undergraduates to explore career options, develop problem-solving skills and set themselves apart for graduate or professional school or employment.
Some students take their research experience a step further — they design, implement and publish their own research projects, ultimately becoming listed as the coveted “first author” on the manuscript.
First authors — those who generally contribute the most work to a project — are typically those who already hold advanced degrees and have spent years studying their discipline, conducting research and writing manuscripts. Undergraduates serving as first authors are, understandably, fairly uncommon.
Two UK undergraduates, Katie Land and Lauren Hudson, and May 2020 graduate, Lucy Bowers, all achieved “first author” status during their time at UK. None of them planned on this initially. In fact, they weren’t even sure if they even wanted to do research as undergraduates. But with open minds, support from faculty mentors and a lot of determination, they’ve earned something that takes most scholars many years to achieve.
For Land, a pre-med senior majoring in biology, the desire to get involved in undergraduate research happened after joining STEMCats, a UK living learning community, her freshman year. Based in the College of Arts and Sciences, STEMCats explores research and career opportunities in STEM disciplines and provides a close-knit community of students with science or medical interests.
As a first-generation college student from Georgetown, Kentucky, Land was a bit intimidated about joining a lab at first.
“Coming in as a freshman, I didn't necessarily think research is something I absolutely wanted to do,” Land said. “But I got involved in STEMCats, and I got placed into a lab. Then I met Dr. Patrick Hannon, and I just wanted to get involved in experimental and bench science as much as possible to see if it's something that I could see myself doing for a long time.”
Hannon’s lab, based in UK College of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, studies phthalates, which are a class of chemicals that humans are exposed to on a daily basis. They’re used in a multitude of common consumer products, including cosmetics, food and beverage containers, building materials, and car upholstery.
According to Land, previous research suggests that phthalates are able to directly target the ovary, which means they could potentially affect fertility and overall reproductive health.
The paper Land authored, which appeared in Toxicological Sciences, looks at an environmentally relevant phthalate mixture and its effects on ovulation using rodent ovarian follicles.
“What we found is when we treat these follicles with this chemical mixture, ovulation is decreased at every dose that we tested,” Land said. “This is the first time that phthalates have been seen to directly inhibit ovulation. And so because we saw that inhibition of ovulation, the paper also goes into the different mechanisms in which ovulation could have been inhibited.”
Land said publishing this paper was the most challenging, and rewarding, part of her undergraduate experience.
“It's something that I put a lot of effort into, and I've been working on it for a very long time,” she said. “Hopefully it's the first of very many papers that I have to write and hopefully publish.”
During her time at UK, Land served as an undergraduate research ambassador, presented to Kentucky state legislators during the Kentucky Posters-at-the-Capitol event in March, and presented at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) in 2020 and will again in 2021. She was also a top 10 finalist in UK’s annual 5-Minute Fast Track Research Competition.
Her experience in Hannon’s lab has inspired her to continue her career in research.
“I think I have decided that I wouldn't be truly happy if I wasn't still involved in research,” she said. “So I am applying to MD/PhD programs this spring and hopefully staying involved in OB/GYN. I never thought being an OB/GYN would be something I wanted to do, but research has definitely changed everything for me.”
For junior Lauren Hudson, a neuroscience major from Villa Hills, Kentucky, research wasn’t something she thought she wanted to do.
“I had only really known of bench research, in my lab-based courses, and that just wasn't my thing. I didn't enjoy it,” she said.
Hudson was actually already an author prior to coming to UK — she had written several fantasy novels and other books for young adults. By a string of fortunate events, Assistant Director for Research Nathan Vanderford in the UK Markey Cancer Center learned of Hudson in an article about her fantasy novels. In that article, Hudson (then a freshman) mentioned her desire to become an oncologist.
“Dr. Vanderford reached out to me and said ‘I want a student who is interested in cancer and has writing skills. Would you want to work with me?’ And I said, ‘oh my gosh, yes. Why would I not?’ And it's gone from there,” she said.
Vanderford’s research program strives to increase cancer literacy rates in Appalachian youth by incorporating cancer education into middle and high schools.
After working on her first project with Vanderford, Hudson discovered a passion for cancer education in Kentucky
“Kentucky faces the overall highest cancer incidence and mortality rates in the country, with a large percentage of the cases coming from the Appalachian region,” she said. “It wasn’t until I began my research on cancer literacy that I realized I was in a unique position to truly make a difference in the cancer disparity in Appalachia Kentucky through cancer education.”
Their study found dramatic, long-term increases in cancer knowledge, even after a short 30-minute presentation.
“We thought, if this can happen in this short amount of time, imagine what can happen if something like this is integrated into schools long term?”
Hudson is first author on two publications related to cancer education and literacy in secondary schools, one in the Journal of Cancer Education and another in Southern Medical Journal. She has also just finished two additional papers on training students for cancer-focused careers, in the Southern Medical Journal and Journal of Appalachian Health.
Working with the UK College of Education, the team is developing curricula that align with Kentucky’s science and health standards. They hope to integrate it into schools this fall.
“You hear about students who are first authors on papers, and you think, ‘oh that can never be me.’ But then suddenly, it was,” she said. “It's very exciting to see something that has actually come from the research that people are using in their day-to-day lives. It means a lot.”
Hudson was selected for a UK Summer Research and Creativity Fellowship in 2019 and 2020 and presented at the 2019 5-Minute Fast Track Research Competition and the 2020 Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars. Hudson plans to go to medical school after graduating from UK, with hopes to stay in Kentucky.
Like Hudson, Lucy Bowers, from Granger, Indiana, also wasn’t interested in bench research as an undergraduate.
“I always thought research involved mice or fish, and that was not my thought process or how I wanted to get involved in research,” said Bowers, who is a 2020 graduate from the UK College of Health Sciences.
During her sophomore year, Bowers received an email that said faculty in her college were looking for research assistance involving ankle sprains.
“I did orthopedic internships in high school, and so I knew this was up my alley,” she said. “So when I saw that email, I jumped on the opportunity to get involved in that.”
Bowers soon began working with mentors Kyle Kosik and Phillip Gribble. Their research looked at the percentage of patients that were referred to physical therapy and the percentage of patients supplied a medication for an ankle sprain from an office-based physician
“What we found was that a lot of patients are receiving an NSAID, or even an opioid prescription, and are filling that opioid prescription for an ankle sprain,” she said. “It's something that really doesn't need to have an opioid prescription. And they're not getting prescriptions to go to physical therapy, where they can get stronger, work on range of motion and get back to their activities faster.”
Bowers said minimizing opioid prescriptions and focusing on physical therapy is especially important right now, in the height of the opioid epidemic.
“We are over prescribing a lot of our medications and in turn under treating the real underlying issue, where we could be using resources like physical therapy (to address it),” she said.
The study, with Bowers as first author, published last year in The Physician and Sportsmedicine, while Bowers was still a senior.
“Having your first paper as first author is special,” she said. “I think it proves to yourself that you're able to do such a thing. Research is a lot of work — you don't just write a paper off of something. You have to get the data, and synthesize it and figure out what the results are. And so knowing that you started something from the ground up, it’s very rewarding.”
During her undergraduate years at UK, she presented at the 2019 UK Substance Research Day, the 2020 Kentucky Posters-at-the-Capitol and the 2019 and 2020 Showcase of Undergraduate Scholars. She is now a UK orthopaedic trauma research fellow and plans to go to medical school.
“I love patient care and working with patients,” she said. “The most rewarding thing for me is seeing my patients grow and get back to their activities. And seeing how our research is impacting them.”
When it comes to getting involved in undergraduate research, the students have the same advice for undergraduates: just try it.
“Take a semester, maybe a year — if you decide that it's not for you, that's okay. But there's a chance you'll find something that you really love,” Hudson said.
“I always say try one project. And if you really don't like it, there are many options out there,” Bowers said. “It's okay to work in one lab and realize that it wasn't for you, and go find something else that you're passionate about. It may not be what you originally thought you wanted to do.”
The students also credit their faculty mentors, who they say not only offered them a research experience, but made their first author status possible.
“Being first author on a research paper still feels a little surreal to me,” Land said. “It's an opportunity that not a lot of undergraduates get, so I feel very thankful that I have a faculty mentor that was willing to teach me the writing process and how to publish a paper.”
"My research mentors have been a huge impact in my life,” Bowers said. “I think having mentors not only guides you along the path, but they're also there to pick you up when you're not feeling your greatest or when things go wrong."
“The faculty mentors here are honestly incredible, and they understand this is brand new to you,” Land said. “They're very willing to teach you, if you're willing to learn.”