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A CULTURE OF COLLABORATION

Undergraduates make meaningful contributions to research at TCU.

The TCU educational experience has long revolved around the teacher-scholar model, made possible by the 13:1 student-to-faculty ratio. Small class sizes lead to an environment conducive to the kind of mentorship necessary for effective integrated research teams. At many top 100 universities throughout the United States, only juniors and seniors do meaningful work in labs, and even then they’re often supervised by graduate students and have little to no contact with professors. Not so at TCU.

Endeavors sat down with two faculty members and seven students to discuss how TCU students of all levels work together to build a culture of research and scholarship.

Professors Shauna McGillivray and Anton Naumov (seated in chairs) mentor several students, including (l-r) Ryan McKinney, Bong Lee, Alex Caron, Charna Kinard, Steven Nguyen and Alina Valimukhametova in pursuing science and engineering research from different perspectives. The students range from post-graduate to high school level and all have access to real research.

Professors Shauna McGillivray and Anton Naumov (seated in chairs) mentor several students, including (l-r) Ryan McKinney, Bong Lee, Alex Caron, Charna Kinard, Steven Nguyen and Alina Valimukhametova in pursuing science and engineering research from different perspectives. The students range from post-graduate to high school level and all have access to real research.
PHOTO BY Rodger Mallison

McGillivray: I think the way that TCU operates under the teacher-scholar model is unique in the sense that undergrads really do form a major part of our research. Any university is going to have aspects of teacher-scholar, but if you go to a really huge research university, you are probably going to be paired more with a postdoc or senior graduate student rather than working really side by side with a professor. One of the reasons I came to TCU is that I wanted not only to be doing research, but also teaching students how to do research.

Caron: I started research during my sophomore year here, and a lot of times at other colleges and universities, students don’t have an opportunity to start until junior year. Knowing that I could come to TCU and do meaningful research early into my undergrad years, where I could get some of that really valuable experience, was very important to me.

Valimukhametova: I came here from Russia for my PhD and love that we have undergraduates and even high school students working together in Dr. Naumov’s lab. New people and fresh blood bring new ideas, and we can train our most junior members on research excellence.

We also have people from different fields in this lab. My experience is more in chemistry and biology, but we have some who are strong in math, and we have a medical student. All of these different backgrounds and strengths make us stronger.

Kinard: This lab has been such a blessing to me as a budding physician. I started working here as a first-year medical student as part of my senior research thesis. To be honest, physics was never my thing. But what I’ve learned in this lab is to stay innovative, to stay creative and stay questioning. I never thought of myself as creative or questioning enough to be a scientist, but in this lab I feel really diligent about my message. I feel diligent about answering the questions that I’m seeking out. I feel constantly inquisitive and propelled toward excellence.

Naumov: For the junior members of our team, they get to learn lab techniques and contribute in meaningful ways to the research we are doing. I have found that TCU has very strong undergraduates compared to other schools. They have a fresh memory of classes they’ve taken and theoretical knowledge they are excited to apply.

McGillivray: Definitely. I don’t have exact numbers, but I would say that probably close to half of our students eventually do research here. Within the biology department, it’s pretty common for students to at least give it a try. These undergraduates are a major part of the workforce in the labs. I’ve had a number of students who have published with me, and there are some travel funds for students who want to present at conferences. TCU is pretty unique in how much support it gives to undergrads.

Campbell: Prior to TCU, I was teaching high school physics in the Fort Worth Independent School District. When I was applying for grad school I had this idea of what I was interested in, but it was always with the ultimate goal of returning to teaching. Then when I started doing research in Dr. Naumov’s lab, I realized I enjoyed the lab much more than I anticipated. My goal now is to return to research after I complete my MBA. That desire and interest was found during my time at TCU.

Naumov: For undergraduates, they start with a general idea that they like physics. What part of physics they like they don’t know. Some move to biophysics or medicine as they work with us. Their time in the lab in many cases helps them decide what they are going to pursue in life.

Lee: I try to get the undergraduate students I work with to find shortcuts, to try and avoid the tedious jobs. I try to get them to think of a way of tackling a problem so they can get more of a qualitative experience instead of just blindly doing experiments and spending hours and hours doing things like measurements. To make their time count in a more efficient way.

Nguyen: I’m a high school junior and feel so lucky to be here in this lab run by Dr. Naumov, who is at the top of his field. In high school you don’t really see outcomes the way you do in this lab. I’ve learned so much from him but also from the students. It’s been an amazing experience for me.

Jordan: I have loved working with the graduate students in the lab. It was definitely a little intimidating at first, but I think working alongside them has accelerated my learning curve because they never complain about answering questions or explaining things, so I feel really comfortable working with them.

McGillivray: All my students in the lab have their projects, like understanding how bacteria could cause disease or doing something with antibiotic development. My goal is to manage them and help troubleshoot, teach them the techniques and help get them over roadblocks.

Caron: There was a steep learning curve when I first got into the lab. People would throw around these terms that I didn’t necessarily know. But the longer you are in this environment, the more you pick up on it and the more everything just makes sense to you. There is definitely a large jump between just learning about something in your classes and actually doing the research for yourself.

Naumov: The undergraduates learn techniques. The grad students learn how to communicate with the undergraduates and how to lead a program, which includes distributing duties among the under-graduates and the high school students. In explaining things, they also learn, because when you try to explain something to someone, you truly learn it. I can tell you that as a professor.

BY LISA MARTIN