Fostering research experiences for students

A student installs a camera trap in 2019 to capture images of wildlife for a Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative Network research project. (Photo: CCURI)

Interest in community colleges offering undergraduate research experiences has increased since the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) a year ago convened a national summit on research experiences for two-year college students.

At the recent 2020 Virtual ATE Conference, leaders of three Advanced Technological Education (ATE) initiatives shared information about their new efforts to expand authentic research opportunities for community college students. (The Community College Undergraduate Research Experience (URE) Summit, the ATE Conference and all of the industry-focused activities described in detail below have received grant support from the National Science Foundation’s ATE program.)

Internships with industry are often “game-changers” for students, according to Tom Tubon, who moderated the panel discussion at the ATE conference in October. In an interview after the conference, Tubon, the principal investigator of the Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing of Cell and Tissue-Based Products at Madison Area Technical College (Wisconsin), where he teaches biotechnology, talked about the complexity of creating internship programs. 

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“It’s a very complicated path to walk because it is about establishing meaningful relationships with industry partners,” he said. “There’s a value proposition that’s involved. For an industry partner to really work with a community college program for the workforce, they have to recognize and see the value that that opportunity brings. And vice versa, we want to make sure in those types of environments we bring the right people into the workplace or that industry-based research environment.”

The process of starting an internship program can take years. Tubon noted that ATE principal investigators begin developing trust with industry partners when their grant-funded initiatives start. 

“It’s relationship-building based on opportunities, return on investment, and also the industry partners get the opportunity to really find out about what these students that we generate are capable of adding to the company’s bottom line,” he said.  

Research that helps employers

As co-principal investigator of the National Biotechnology Education Center (InnovATEBIO), James A. Hewlett focuses on adding innovative practices to biotechnology programs at two-year colleges. His efforts to improve the preparation of biotechnicians include devising authentic research experiences for students. (Tubon is also an InnovATEBIO co-principal investigator.) 

Hewlett is currently working with InnovATEBIO’s industry partners to create internship programs and other UREs that the center’s partner colleges can replicate. Hewlett is also helping those colleges establish research experiences with employers in their communities. 

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hewlett — who has been creating research experiences at community colleges since 2005 — added authentic research into the biology curriculum at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) in New York and then started the Community College Undergraduate Research Initiative (CCURI). This 122-institution network shares best practices and assists with the expansion of UREs at community colleges. 

During the panel discussion at the ATE meeting, Hewlett talked about the benefits of working with small start-up companies. He found that because these companies lack money for research and development, they welcome having students explore multiple questions that have potential for future products, but that are not critical to current operations.  

At FLCC, for example, he has scaffolded research questions provided by Cheribundi through the two-year biology program. A module in the introductory biology course introduces authentic industry research questions. A subsequent course teaches the lab techniques that the juice manufacturer uses to test the stability of different compounds over time and in different conditions. Second-year students delve into specific questions in a research course where they conduct experiments and analyze data reported to the company. 

Developing scientists

Margaret Bryans, principal investigator of the Northeast Biomanufacturing Center and Collaborative (NBC2), is beginning a new project to increase participation in a 10-week, paid internship program she has piloted with support from the college’s foundation since 2015. NSF support will provide stipends for students and underwrite the cost of an academic research coordinator who oversees the interns’ work. Companies near Montgomery County Community College (Pennsylvania), where NBC2 is located and Bryans is a biotechnology professor, provide the research questions and contribute the specialized reagents, antibodies, cell lines and growth factors necessary to conduct the experiments in the college’s biotechnology lab. 

All five students who interned during the pilot were hired for full-time, biotechnician jobs shortly after completing their internships. 

After Sean Hubley completed an internship in 2019 researching cancer cell lines for Rockland Immunochemicals, Inc. at Montgomery County Community College’s biotechnology lab, he was hired by WuXi Advanced Therapies as a manufacturing associate. (Photo: NBC2)

This victory for the students also validates Bryans’ strategy of selecting students who are not academic stars for internships. She intentionally picks students who need more practice, better communications skills or more laboratory competence to compete in the full-time employment market. Almost all of the interns in the pilot phase were first-generation college students. Whenever possible, Bryans also tries to match students’ biotechnology career interests with the activities of the company providing the research opportunities.

While conducting research and analyzing data, the interns are expected to communicate professionally with the companies’ scientists.

 “This, I believe, is key for them to really ace that interview to get the job at the end of the internship,” Bryans said. 

Related articles: Diving into student research experiences and Sharing ideas on expanding student research experiences

Interns meet the scientists during an initial site visit to the company with an academic mentor. Then, during subsequent biweekly virtual project meetings, the interns report on the data from their experiments. At the end of the 10 weeks, each intern makes a scientific presentation to the company and displays a scientific poster at the college. 

Bryans has found that combining authentic research with multiple communication requirements enhances interns’ professional growth. 

“It really puts them in the position where they can go for an interview and really sell themselves. They have something concrete to discuss — their research project,” she said. 

Interns also receive resume guidance, are prepped with mock interviews and connected with hiring managers. 

Opportunities for all students

Offering students a nearly year-long opportunity that combines remote interactions and in-person research experiences is one of the strategies that the Micro Nano Technology Education Center (MNT-EC) plans to use to recruit underrepresented minority students. 

Jared Ashcroft, MNT-EC principal investigator, considers the best way to prepare students for micro-nanotechnology careers is “to get them working in those industries as fast as possible after taking our coursework, and undergraduate research, work-based learning experiences, experiential learning experiences — whatever we want to call them.” 

UREs are a pedagogical tool that Ashcroft has refined for years as a professor of natural sciences at Pasadena City College (PCC) in California and leader of the Early Career Undergraduate Research (eCURe) program and other research opportunities there. PCC is the host institution for MNT-EC, a consortium of community colleges, baccalaureate-degree-granting institutions, research labs and private companies. 

Related article: Sharing hands-on learning experiences

The MNT Undergraduate Research Student Scholars Program is a collaboration of the Southern University of Shreveport (a Louisiana community college that is a historically Black college), Northwest Vista College (Texas) and PCC (both Hispanic-serving institutions), Louisiana Tech University, Princeton University and the University of New Mexico (also a Hispanic-serving institution).

The scholars will meet remotely twice a month for 10 months to learn from industry speakers and about research done on their respective campuses. They will also take asynchronous learning modules that teach MNT workforce skills. And the scholars will work in groups to explore questions in different disciplines, such as nanobiotechnology, microsensor fabrication and photonics.  

In the summer, students will have the opportunity to do a two-to-three week research experience at a partner site. Ashcroft hopes that these brief experiences will fit students’ schedules and pique their interest in micro-nanotechnology careers. 

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.