URSCA director: Research is highest high-impact practice for undergrads

Posted April 5, 2018

When Lissa Schneider-Rebozo started at UW-River Falls in 2005, she was a literature and film professor with extensive experience as an author. She was involved with undergraduate research from the time she first arrived, but opening an entire office dedicated to it was something she hadn’t even considered.

Now, UW-River Falls is celebrating the five-year anniversary of the office for Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity. Schneider-Rebozo became the founding director of URSCA in the winter of 2013, having already worked with students on research in upper-level classes.

She will be one of the faculty members who will accompany 23 students to present research at the UW System Symposium in Green Bay on April 20. This will allow students to present their research and be rated for their performance.

Schneider-Rebozo used her past experiences as a full-time professor to help start up the URSCA program five years ago; pretty much every class she taught included research projects, from an English 100 class to an upper-level multidisciplinary class. She said that it wasn’t always the case where she picked the best project, but it depended on how motivated the student was. She also picked projects from students regardless of major, so by the end of her time she had advised on projects with 16 or 17 different majors.

“It’s really rewarding for the students. As a professor, I have always loved (research),” Schneider-Rebozo said. “It makes the teaching process more meaningful.”

She also described how UWRF has a list of high-impact practices (study abroad, internships, writing-intensive classes, etc.) that they stress. However, undergraduate research holds a special place among them.

“Every study has shown that it is the highest impact,” Schneider-Rebozo said. “If you could only do one thing, it’s more important than all the others combined.”

While most of the URSCA projects in the College of Arts and Sciences focus mainly on pure knowledge or theory, most of the work coming out of the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences is applied research. CAFES research is more hands-on and includes trying to find solutions or new products in their respective field.

Nathan Grosse is a conservation and environmental planning major that said he has always been enthusiastic about insects. Last year he found a scholarship that could be used for research and worked to find out how to use his passion and combine it with agricultural economics. He eventually decided on looking at the economic value of pollinating insects.

“Most people know that bees pollinate flowers, but usually people just think about honey bees,” Grosse said. “There’s about 4,000 different species of bees that are wild in the United States, and they do a lot of pollination of native plants and cultivated crops.”

Scientific articles have been showing that bee populations have been decreasing in recent years, whether it be through habitat loss, diseases or pesticide use, according to Grosse. He said that not many people are paying attention to this problem, which was highlighted by the fact that there has never been a published list of the different species of pollinators in Wisconsin.

Grosse decided to fix this problem by starting the research himself. He picked a bunch of agricultural locations in Pierce and St. Croix counties, including farm co-ops, commercial agriculture sites, a winery, prairie restorations and cattle farms. He set up traps over the course of the whole summer to see how many different species he could catch.

Grosse caught a total of 257 different specimens, which included almost 70 different species of pollinators. He also worked to compare the overall richness and diversity of the seven sites that he visited. He wasn’t able to determine if land use directly affected the varying richness and diversity at the sites, saying he wish he would’ve visited fewer sites more times if he had the chance. Dr. Joseph Gathman, one of Grosse’s advisors, said that the work accomplished proved that there is a need for a more elaborate studies to find answers.

“Undergraduate research projects are, after all, primarily educational experiences for students,” Gathman said. “The likelihood of an undergraduate research project “discovering” anything substantial is not high, because doing high-level science, such as discovering important principles about pollinators, is rather complicated, and usually takes a longer period of time and a more sophisticated experimental design.”

Gathman also gave Grosse a “crash course” in statistics to help him analyze his data, which Gathman said Grosse understood faster than most students would. However, learning a new level of statistics isn’t what took up the largest chunk of his time.

“The biggest investment of time was identifying the specimen,” Grosse said. “Some of (them) were only a few mm long, so most of the time spent on this was looking through a microscope to look at the small details.”

Grosse was the first to publish a list on the pollinators in the region, and will look to continue his work when he interns at the Carpenter Nature Center in Hastings and Hudson this summer. He will be doing an insect survey at both of their locations, which he hopes can increase his findings.

Grosse added that the research project significantly helped him learn how to present and convey the results of his findings. He’s already presented at three different locations and will try to summarize his research in Green Bay and Madison later this month.

“I got second place in the quick-pitch competition for my three minute pitch on why bees are important,” Grosse said. “I usually start by asking how much you think about food and how much do you think about bees, because 30 to 40 percent of global food production is by pollinating insects.”

Other students in CAFES will also be presenting in Green Bay, including Lucas Heimmermann, an animal science major with a meat animal emphasis. Instead of the hands-on research that Grosse participated in, Heimmermann focused more on analyzing data to solve a problem concerning the livestock industry.

“It’s part of continuing research that (Dr. Kurt Vogel) has been doing on the Food Safety and Inspection Service,” Heimmermann said. “We go through the letters of enforcement action on humane handling, and we look at the species involved and the reasoning behind the action.”

He found that a large proportion of the enforcement actions in 2017 included improper stunning of the animal. This occurs when an animal is being prepared to be slaughtered, because the goal is to have the animal feel as little pain as possible. Failures can occur when people don’t effectively use the captive bolt gun in one shot, and may take two or three shots to stun the animal.

“It’s an animal welfare issue,” Heimmermann said. “It’s our duty to provide these animals with proper animal welfare, and it’s something as a society that we’ve deemed is important. Our job as animal owners and users is to eliminate animal suffering as much as possible. One stun makes it easy, while extra stuns make it extremely stressful on the animal.”

Heimmermann concluded that more training is needed for these meat plant workers and farmers on the proper stunning methods. This work is part of ongoing research that Dr. Vogel has done in past years to determine what the industry needs to improve upon.

“It’s allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of the material we’ve gone through in his class,” Heimmermann said. “It’s put what I’ve learned and I can apply … it to the real life problems that we have.”

To aid the important process of taking research and putting into a digestible report, the URSCA office offers a series of poster-making workshops that specialize in the design and content for the student’s presentation. If students want to learn how to write a research proposal, find a mentor or put a research budget together, they have tools on the URSCA website.

“It is demanding,” Schneider-Rebozo said. “It’s what the student learns from writing the grant and doing the research and learning the project management to enable them to stay with it and keep going. Those skills together are what lead to the outstanding outcomes: retention, increased employability and success in graduate school.”

She said that she has heard from many of the students who have given research after they’ve finished at UWRF. In almost every case, the students had their URSCA presentation and research experience brought up in the formal interview process, and they believed it was what tipped the scales in their favor in a competitive job market.