This story is featured in the Spring 2019 edition of the HPU Magazine. Discover below how HPU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Works program gives students the chance to make incredible discoveries.
What do okra, mattresses and law firms have in common?
They’re the key to one of the primary aspects that makes a High Point University education so powerful — undergraduate research.
HPU students are investigating these topics to discover new knowledge about how the world works.
What makes research special at HPU is the amount of early opportunity students have to get involved. They begin as freshmen, and by graduation, they’ve attended academic conferences, conducted experiments and presented their research. They may have even been published in scholarly journals.
Alongside them are faculty mentors who’ve invested in helping them develop skills that will serve them well in any career and set them apart.
Getting a Head Start
The Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Works is the starting point. Dr. Joanne Altman, the office’s director, is a resource for students. Her goal is to provide inquiry-based or creative experiences typically available in graduate school or the professional world.
This starts freshman year when students join Research Rookies. They complete activities, workshops and trainings in research approaches and techniques to earn the status of Research Apprentice.
Sophomore Sara Seaford got her early start thanks to Altman, her mentor for a project with the mattress industry. As a freshman, Seaford, a psychology major from Mocksville, North Carolina, led a study for the Specialty Sleep Association that is helping the industry better educate consumers about mattress support.
“Getting Sara involved gave her the chance to present her work and have it published by the Council on Undergraduate Research and the company she worked with,” says Altman. “She’s built confidence and skills as she embraces more rigorous projects and training in her major.”
Trying Something New
Students aren’t expected to have all the tools before they start. By working with faculty who contribute innovative ideas to their fields, students get the chance to learn from projects already underway before branching into their own original work.
Dr. Cindy Vigueira and Dr. Patrick Vigueira, biology professors at HPU, have been working with students to develop a new strain of okra. The Southern vegetable is nutritious but unpalatable to some due to its high levels of mucilage, or slime production. They hope that by studying the genetics of the plant, they will be able to develop a new version with less slime.
Phillip Armentrout, a sophomore from New Bern, North Carolina, is a few semesters into helping the Vigueiras with this research. Like Seaford, he got his start as a freshman.
“At first, I wasn’t very knowledgeable of how laboratory science is conducted,” says Armentrout, who is on a pre-med track. “They helped me properly work in a lab setting and develop a protocol in research that holds value. Research has given me a tremendous confidence boost.”
Confidence to try something new and move forward without having all the answers is what Cindy Vigueira says she encourages among the students working in her lab.
“We’ve been trying to break down the fixed mindset of students and help them realize that their past experiences do not limit them,” she says. “There’s always room to grow and try something new.”
Becoming an Expert
About 2 million college students graduate each spring. That’s a lot of competition for jobs and graduate programs. Research helps students become more marketable by finding ways to distinguish themselves from the pack and highlight their credentials.
Through the hours studying theory, gathering data and interpreting results, HPU students become experts. It distinguishes them in interviews and applications.
Sophomore Sarah Culver is continuing a project started by pre-law students Amanda Vo and Emily Davis. A criminal justice and
English writing major, Culver helped build a database analyzing the economics of practicing different areas of law.
“I’m excited to help those who are going into law pick the most economically responsible career path,” says Culver. “Not many people have done research in this area, and it isn’t something that others can say they’ve accomplished.”
It’s Not Luck, It’s Work
When HPU graduates take their next steps, they are prepared with the skills employers desire because of the hard work they’ve put into research.
“We’re beginning to understand that students are not ‘finding’ their career path but developing it instead,” says Thomas Dearden, assistant professor of criminal justice. “It’s not luck that people fall into their passion. It’s work.”
“I’m thankful for the research opportunity at HPU. It’s made me a better student and a better person,” says Niamh Tattersall, a senior from York, England, who conducts research with Dearden. “It’s enhanced my skills and helped me apply them outside the classroom. I can gather sources, condense information, present findings and communicate effectively.”
Tattersall and other students appreciate the way HPU professors empower them.
“Taking responsibility for our research has led to a lot of personal and professional growth,” says Lucie Kirby, a senior. “It’s really rewarding to have a professor who trusts you to be involved in big projects and do the work well.”