Posted 9:22 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022
Program supports summer undergrad research experiences to foster inquisitive, career-ready grads
In summer 2005 Kristen Bouska was hiking deep into Beartooth Mountains of Montana. In awe of the surrounding snowy white peaks and alpine lakes, Bouska was traveling to the remote location to study the effects of UV radiation on a microscopic plant called phytoplankton.
The UWL undergraduate didn’t know that as she marched deeper into those mountains, she was also heading further into a career in ecological science. Today, more than decade later, Bouska is a research ecologist with USGS, Upper Midwest Environmental Sciences Center, where she studies the long-term health and resilience of the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem.
She is one of more than 350 alumni of UWL’s College of Science and Health Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship Program, which has been part of UWL's research offerings for 23 years. The long-term fellowship program provides resources for both a student and faculty member to have a 10-week, in-depth research experience during the summer months. Faculty select students to participate and students write an independent research proposal based on questions developed with their faculty mentor.
The success of the program is best marked by its graduates who are now working in science, medicine, technology and more. More than 200 have went on to earn additional degrees, including 84 alums who have continued on to receive a doctoral degree.
“We love working with students… We love finding diamonds in the rough and polishing them. This is the best way to do that,” says Roger Haro, associate dean of UWL’s College of Science and Health. “When you look at the people in this program and what they’ve gone on to do — from a faculty point of view, it makes you well up with pride.”
The program has allowed students in a variety of CSH fields to have a strong and career-shaping research experience as undergraduates. That’s not typical at a comprehensive, four-year university like UWL where the primary focus for faculty is teaching, not research.
The Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship program founder Mike Nelson, former CSH dean, had the foresight to realize the value of making undergraduate research a priority. He recalls a conversation with former UWL Chancellor Judith Kuipers about the opportunity to invest in a more formal research scholarship program for students more than 20 years ago.
“I said, if you hook your wagon to the undergraduate research star, I’m going to make you and the university famous,” he recalls telling her. “We’ll be the best in the nation.”
Indeed, over the past 20 years, UWL has made a national reputation for undergraduate research, hosting the National Conference on Undergraduate Research twice and being ranked among the top 23 colleges nationwide recognized by U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges Rankings for stellar undergraduate research and creative projects in 2016.
Nelson understood the quality of learning that happens through undergraduate research that is incomparable to learning by reading textbooks, listening to a lecture or conducting a cook-book style lab experiment.
“I always thought that hands-on was the best way to learn, but it also taught students something about real life,” says Nelson.
Preparation for life
Jay Pieczynski, ’04, and a DDF program alum, hadn’t considered a career conducting research and teaching at the college level until he met UWL Professor Todd Weaver, who introduced him to the DDF Program and the pursuit of independent research.
“I thought it was awesome to go in and study something no one has studied before and learn about things that no one knows the answer to,” says Pieczynski. “That changed my outlook on what someone can actually do with a science degree.”
Weaver was using X-ray crystallography to study the 3D shape and structure of proteins. Pieczynski ended up becoming a Dean’s Distinguished Fellow for two summers with Weaver as his mentor. Piezynski studied an enzyme called fumase, which is involved in producing energy in the body.
The research experience propelled Pieczynski into a competitive, six-month U.S. Army internship working a Walter Reed National Military Medical Center’s research labs. His diverse research experiences got him thinking about continuing his education. He went on to earn his biochemistry doctoral degree at the University of Michigan in 2010 and is now an associate professor of biology at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.
To this day, Pieczynski credits Weaver for being instrumental to discovering his career path.
“The reason I chose to take this job is because of the mentorship Todd provided me,” explains Pieczynski. “He taught me to how to work in the lab, how to work hard, how to be a listener and explain things — technical details in ways that are understandable to novice students and drive curiosity and questions.”
Nelson knew when he started the DDF program that it would be challenging for every student to have an undergraduate research experience, but he felt every student should have some type of learning experience outside of the classroom such as studying abroad or participating in an internship.
“One of the things I think undergraduate research does for the students — and even for the faculty too — is that it helps them become lifelong learners,” says Nelson. “I think that is one of the things that life is all about — being a lifelong learner.”
Pieczynski says the DDF program challenged him to be invested in the information he was learning and it gave him the desire to want to learn more.
“You become a different type of problem solver by tackling big, unknown questions,” notes Pieczynski.
And, in the real world, there is no shortage of those big, unknown questions.
Bouska, with USGS, is frequently coming up with new questions as she analyzes 20 years of data on the health and resilience of the Upper Mississippi River ecosystem.
“I’m finally at a place in my career where I’m pursing my own questions,” she says. “It is naturally a very interesting position where I can lead and be an expert in what I do.”
Her questions will help society understand the factors that drive desirable and undesirable conditions for all forms of life in this river region and, ultimately, where limited restoration dollars should be directed.
She says the Dean’s Distinguished Fellowship program, including her hike up the Beartooths in 2005, gave her new experiences and good insight into what a career in biology and research would entail.
“It gave me confidence that this is something I’m good at,” she says.
- This story was previously published in the 2018-19 College of Science & Health news.