Undergraduate research uncovers more than expected
Wednesday, February 10, 2021
The number of times Zach Royko has been stung should suggest how much he loves research – studying honeybees in particular.
“Over the course of a day, the most I’ve received has been about 100 times,” said Royko, an Oklahoma State University senior finishing his bachelor’s degree in entomology. “Overall? I’ve been stung maybe 600 or 700 times.”
Royko – who was born in Texas but grew up in Louisiana and Missouri – has been involved in research since his freshman year at OSU. He is currently working on a capstone project that examines how to keep destructive beetle species out of beehives. Bee death and hive collapse is an industry problem, costing millions of dollars in losses across the country, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
Something else is happening beyond Royko’s desire to make an impact on the world with his research: The research is having an impact on him. He and many other OSU undergrads said they’re learning about themselves and a fuller range of opportunities than they first imagined.
“For me, it was about the freedom of thought and the discovery process,” said alumni Paul Redman, now CEO of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. “I didn’t realize until much later in my undergraduate studies that I’m a tactile learner and that I need direct application of knowledge, not just reading a book. That’s when the spark ignited for me: when I made the jump from theory to practice.”
On his way to a bachelor’s degree in horticulture in 1990, Redman worked on a poinsettia nutrition project, often preparing plant material for further laboratory analysis. By working alongside other students and faculty in one of OSU’s greenhouse environments, he also discovered other professional opportunities he could pursue in horticulture. He stayed at OSU to earn his master’s degree in 1994. Afterward, he served as director of horticulture at Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Garden in Columbus, Ohio. The OSU experience was invaluable, he said.
Providing undergraduate students with such research opportunities has been a decades-long emphasis in the OSU Ferguson College of Agriculture and has played a key role in many OSU Ag Research projects while growing the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"As a land-grant institution, basic and applied research that ultimately addresses issues and concerns of importance to Oklahoma, the region, the nation and beyond is our lifeblood,” said Keith Owens, OSU Ag Research associate vice president. “Undergraduate researchers enhance our existing capacity in tackling valuable scientific inquiries.”
Karen Hickman, director of Environmental Science at OSU’s Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, oversees the undergraduate research scholar program which is funded by both Ag Research and the Ferguson College of Agriculture. The popular program, which exposes many students to their first real research projects under faculty mentors, supports about 30 freshmen and sophomores each year and prepares them for scholarships that become available through their college career.
Student opportunities encompass the full range of fields – animals, crops, economics, soil, community enhancement, sustainability, marketing and more. Research labs are located in Agricultural Hall, Noble Research Center, Robert M. Kerr Food and Agricultural Products Center and Animal and Food Sciences buildings on the Stillwater campus. Additionally, Ag Research operates field, greenhouse and lab facilities at 18 research stations and centers throughout the state.
Ultimately, research is what each student makes of it, said Phil Mulder, professor and department head of the OSU Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. The paths they take don’t always end up where they expected, but that divergence is actually part of the experience. For example, some of Mulder’s students have gone on to medical school and law school.
Mulder pointed to Miami, Oklahoma, veterinarian David Prescott as an example. Prescott graduated in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in entomology. He could have gone back his hometown in Tennessee but opted instead to stay at OSU for a veterinary degree. He ultimately started a family and launched his own vet hospital in the northeast corner of the state.
Prescott said undergraduate research gave him a jumpstart on his doctorate and professional maturation beyond OSU.
“I really gained a deep appreciation for all the intellectual work that takes place, seeing how to set up test plots, applying different rates for chemicals, determining what’s being affected, tabulating results – it’s a tremendous amount of work to generate reliable information that can be used to guide decisions. That’s invaluable,” he said.
For his part, Royko said he likely would pursue a career in entomology regardless, but taking part in research projects has reinforced his initial interest and helped anchor him to OSU. After graduation, he wants to continue to pursue research or become an OSU Extension professional, possibly as a beehive inspector or specialist consultant.
Compared with Royko’s project, Adelle Crofford and Faith Howe have been working on an even smaller scale in their research, although the implications of their outcomes are equally significant.
Howe, a freshman from Sulphur, Oklahoma, is looking at long non-coding RNA to determine what causes cell division to run amok or shut down – the recipe for cancer. Crofford, a junior from Dallas, Texas, is studying other bits of RNA to understand their effects on fruit flies’ ability to mate.
Like Royko, they are both driven by a need to make the world a better place. Howe said some of her family members have had cancer, and she’d like to be part of a solution to keep others from going through the experience. In Crofford’s case, animals of all types carry a lot of other RNA, so it’s possible her findings might someday help reveal how bacteria inside humans influence our health.
“At first, working in a lab as a freshman helped me learn how to organize my time better, to get more involved on campus and interact with faculty. It’s more than that now,” Crofford said. “But whatever the field, it also really puts you on the spot – you have to think about the tough questions and not be afraid to be wrong so you can ask more questions to move forward. I feel it’s given me an advantage.”
Hickman has seen many students come to realize through research that even negatives can be positive. They face setbacks because not all projects go smoothly. They learn the value of precision and process.
As Redman said, “Research all boils down to critical thinking and being aware of what you don’t know and learning how to change what you don’t know.”
Other benefits of undergraduate research opportunities include:
- Students get to explore potential career directions through immersion in specific research projects.
- Research presentations makes students more able, thoughtful scientists and better advocates for their career fields.
- Students gain skills, knowledge and confidence that ultimately make them more attractive employees to academia, industry and public service.
- Undergraduate researchers wanting to attend graduate school are better prepared than those who have not.
MEDIA CONTACT: Brian Brus | Agricultural Communications Services | 405-744-6792 | BBrus@okstate.edu