By Andrea Liu ’23 (she/her), Staff Writer
For students interested in conducting research with professors in the Biology Department, professors Dr. Susana Wadgymar and Dr. Bryan Thurtle-Schmidt are spearheading the effort to reshape the independent study process.
The typical way for students to begin conducting research, consistent across all STEM departments, involves students reaching out to a professor who either taught one of their classes or whose research they find interesting. Starting next semester, students interested in joining biology research labs will apply through Handshake.
Biology major Katie Soden ‘21 conducts research with Dr. Sophia Sarafova. After taking Dr. Sarafova’s BIO 113 course, during which Soden chose to spend a lot of time in office hours, Dr. Sarafova invited Soden to observe her research lab. After shadowing other student researchers, Soden soon decided that she wanted to join Dr. Sarafova’s immunology lab and began her independent study. Soden is currently studying how changes in mice microbiomes affect the T-cell ratio in their immune systems.
In the existing system, Dr. Wadgymar observed, “there’s been a little bit of mystery in how people acquire research opportunities, and [it] typically involves students knowing that you can just ask a professor.”
The Biology Department began sending out the new application for independent studies to holistic advisors and various student organizations earlier this week in the hopes of publicizing it to reach as many students interested in biological research as possible.
Dr. Wadgymar noted that some students don’t realize that they don’t need to have a project idea to start conducting research with professors, and others don’t realize that they can change labs. These uncertainties, Dr. Wadgymar commented, “can impose a barrier to students even inquiring about research opportunities.”
In the wake of a summer of protests for racial justice, Dr. Thurtle-Schmidt explained, the Biology Department inquired about what they could do to “take down barriers to access and to increase equity and inclusion [in the department].” The new application system aims to do just that by “putting in place a more equitable, transparent process.”
According to Dr. Thurtle-Schmidt, the application will be open to anyone interested in conducting biology research. It “is meant to be consistent with our goals: it’s short and universal,” he said. This also means that any student in any major has the opportunity to conduct biology research.
Until now, “we had no idea which students wanted a research opportunity and didn’t know they could have one or didn’t feel qualified,” Dr. Wadgymar added. The new system also provides the department numerical data about inquiries and demand for research with faculty, and it will ultimately help guide the Biology Department’s efforts to best serve students.
The application lists faculty with open positions in their lab, their contact information, any prerequisites that students should meet before applying, and additional information regarding the research of the professor. Students can apply to as many or as few labs as they wish based on their research interests.
To apply, students describe why they are interested in pursuing research and how research fits into their broader goals (professionally and personally), in addition to submitting a resume. Dr. Thurtle-Schmidt emphasized that students are asked not to submit a GPA. “We as a faculty do not think that GPA is connected to the potential for excellence in scientific research,” he said.
The department hopes that this new process will provide a fairer way for students to take advantage of research opportunities at Davidson. Students currently working in labs do not have to reapply; students who wish to change labs, even if they are currently conducting research, however, would apply through the system.
Soden noted that the new system is a good way for students to meet faculty. She observed, “Especially if you didn’t have them as a professor, you probably wouldn’t interact with them and get to know them [otherwise].” She added that she was intimidated by talking to professors, particularly when speaking to one she didn’t know well, and that the new system facilitates communication between an interested student and a professor.
However, Soden pointed out that all labs “have different personalities,” and a student’s personality may not fit well with some professors,” even if their research is of interest. On that note, she said that “it may be tricky to make a decision [in choosing a lab] based solely off of an online application.” For Soden, feeling comfortable enough to make mistakes is an important part of a student-professor relationship, and that comes primarily from personal interactions in addition to professional ones.
Dr. Wadgymar and Dr. Thurtle-Schmidt elaborated that following an acceptance through Handshake, a professor may have a secondary screening process, whether it be a one-on-one meeting or giving the student a paper to read through, but what happens after the application is individualized to each professor.
As Dr. Thurtle-Schmitt stated, “Our sincere hope of what this new system ends up doing when put into practice is that it will lower barriers to access for all students.”
For students interested, the Handshake application can be found here: https://davidson.joinhandshake.com/jobs/4092178