Students doing research get hands-on, go abroad

About 20 percent of undergraduates in the College of Arts and Sciences participate in research during their college career at the University of Miami. But Michael Gaines, biology professor and assistant provost for undergraduate research and community outreach, would like to see that number increase.

“There are lots of students interested in the biological sciences, but we want to broaden the net and get more students involved in the humanities and social sciences,” Gaines said.

As the administration pushes to increase UM’s standing among American universities, opportunities for undergraduates to conduct research are integral to the university’s appeal as a producer of well-prepared graduates.

“The reputation of the university improves if students come out knowing how to analyze, interpret and conceptualize what they’re doing,” said Don McNeill, scientist at the Rosenstiel School and professor in geology. “I would like to have all the students involved in some type of project.”

Although the university gains recognition from such work, the advantages for students are similarly tangible when they publish their independent research or present it at a conference.

Laura Gillespie, a senior majoring in marine science and geology, worked with McNeill in Panama. She presented her work at the Geological Society of America’s annual meeting in Denver, Colo., in October.

“One of the leading researchers approached me and asked me about my research,” Gillespie said. “It was nerve-wracking.”

Gillespie’s research filled a gap in the evolutionary history of corals that formed close to one million years ago between two geological time periods, the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs. She was also the first UM student to work in Bocas del Toro basin, an island in Panama, where she was housed by the Smithsonian Research Center.

“[Her research] is special because it shows a window when a rare occurrence of corals [transitioned from] old fauna to new fauna,” said McNeill.

A new scholarship called Beyond the Book, which was established in May 2007 and is offered to selected undergraduates who want to pursue research, enabled Gillespie to pay rent over the summer and continue her work instead of returning home to live with her parents. Gillespie was one of 14 students selected and received $2,500.

Psychology major Aparna Saini, a junior, received a total of $5,000 in funding from Beyond the Book as well as from the Women and Minorities Summer Research Program. The money allowed her to pursue research regarding memory in people suffering from depression.

“I believe memory really defines who we are,” Saini said. “Imagine not being able to come up with a memory.”

She presented her poster, which contains a summary of her project, in Austin, Texas, on Nov. 9 at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students. But getting to that point wasn’t easy. Summer research grants require students to dedicate at least 40 hours a week to their research.

“I had to go through a lot [to get funding]. It was really intense but really rewarding,” Saini said.

Psychology professor Jutta Joormann, who served as Saini’s mentor, echoes the importance of including committed undergraduates like Saini in research.

“We’re very selective because they’re so involved,” Joormann said. “We couldn’t do the research we do without having undergraduates involved. I couldn’t imagine my life without undergraduates.”

Erica Landau may be contacted at