Since high school, Blesethe West knew she wanted to pursue undergraduate research in college. So when Tanya Kelley, director of Undergraduate Research, gave a presentation to her Honors 109 class about the research opportunities available through their office, West was interested. However, she was reluctant to apply.
“I’m a self-doubter all the time, so when I want to do something I tend to push myself away from it,” West said. “But I saw that the Pack Research Experience Program (PREP) was specifically for freshmen and sophomores [and encouraged participation] of underrepresented communities. I didn't think that I would get it, but I told myself I can still try.”
After the presentation, she looked on the Undergraduate Research website and contacted Kelley to get more information about how to get started with PREP, a research award designed specifically for freshman and sophomores that prioritizes students from historically underrepresented communities or first-generation students. In this program, undergraduate students are paid to work on a research project with the guidance of a faculty mentor. Since she plans on going to medical school in the future, she felt this would be a great way for her to gain valuable academic experience early on.
West is also part of the Honors College and the American Medical Student Association (AMSA), which have both been helpful resources in her academic journey. The Honors College has exposed her to many different ways, including undergraduate research, to further develop her academic abilities. AMSA has also been beneficial because they have “great opportunities that allow you to help people but also help yourself pursue activities that can help you get a feel for what you may want to do, or even things you don’t like,” West said.
She was accepted into PREP for the Spring 2022 semester, and now works with her faculty mentor Steven Frese, assistant professor in the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology & Natural Resources’ Department of Nutrition. West is currently pursuing a degree in nutrition, so developing research with Frese has been an opportunity to learn more about her major.
“Steve is amazing,” she said. “Everything that we do in the lab, he explains why and how it's useful in the research. If I have questions about anything regarding the lab, he is more than willing to help me understand. For me, that's big because [I’m reluctant to go into] environments where I don't feel wanted. But when I’m in the lab with everybody, I feel like I am a part of the lab.”
For their research project, they are looking into how different types of bacteria can reduce inflammation in the gut. West said this is important because “inflammation is big in people’s health. A lot of people do have inflammation, so figuring out a way to reduce inflammation and in a way, prevent it, will be a huge breakthrough for medicine.” So far, West has been learning more about different lab processes related to their research, which has helped her feel more comfortable and confident in a lab setting.
“We need people from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences to ask the questions that other people haven't asked, to find those gaps that haven't been addressed yet, to answer those important questions,” said Sarah Mitchell, repeat PREP mentor. “Getting those research experiences is going to be something that no one can take away from you, and you can always put it on your CV or your resume.”
Steven Frese is just one of the many faculty mentors available through PREP. Another example of a supportive faculty mentor in the program is Sarah Mitchell, assistant professor of human development and family science in the College of Education and Human Development. In her lab, they are primarily focusing on a large research project called the Intersecting Identities and Relationships study, a mixed methods study looking at different identities, how certain identities intersect, and the experiences of those who hold these varying identities. There are multiple subprojects done under this “umbrella study,” including one on labeling importance in identity.
Mitchell has mentored through Undergraduate Research since Fall 2020 and said having these kinds of opportunities available is valuable because “research can sometimes be intimidating or can come across as being for certain majors, subjects or people,” and PREP makes it more approachable for students.
One of her goals as a mentor has been to go through as much of the research process as possible in their time together, so mentees can get a realistic sense of what research is like.
“Research takes time,” Mitchell said. “I want [students] to understand the different parts, and so I encourage starting from the beginning of a process instead of just saying ‘oh here's this project that's already going, you can just hop on.’”
Mitchell and Frese’s mentorship demonstrates the strong guidance that inspires undergraduates to believe in their educational and professional abilities. Mitchell encourages students, especially those who are hesitant like West was, to participate in undergraduate research.
“We need people from diverse backgrounds with diverse experiences to ask the questions that other people haven't asked, to find those gaps that haven't been addressed yet, to answer those important questions,” Mitchell said. “Getting those research experiences is going to be something that no one can take away from you, and you can always put it on your CV or your resume.”
West also encouraged other students to get involved in research.
“Just go for it, because at the end of the day, you're not going to get it if you don't apply. So by applying, you're giving yourself a chance to do something new.”