A Shift in Thinking: Research Brings UMR Students New Perspectives

University of Minnesota Rochester Chancellor Lori Carrell, PhD, listens to a poster presentation during the 9th Annual UMR Research & Education Symposium in May. Photo: UMR  

Jeffrey Ratliff-Crain knows, from firsthand experience, how important research is to a student’s college education. Through scientific inquiry, students learn to explore concepts, analyze information, pay attention to detail, and even grapple with questions of ethics.

“It’s a very active way of engaging with information and trying to solve real-world problems and issues,” he said. “Research experiences can completely shift your career trajectory and help you realize where your strengths and interests are.”

Ratliff-Crain, PhD, is vice chancellor for academic affairs and innovation at the University of Minnesota Rochester, where every undergraduate student conducts research. Both of UMR’s majors, the Bachelor of Sciences in Health Sciences and the Bachelor of Sciences in Health Professions, include a series of in-course experiences designed to foster students’ scientific interests, augment their education, and set them up for a successful career.

The courses start by building students’ core research skills in areas like research writing and data collection before moving on to more independently driven projects that involve setting up and carrying out research projects in small groups. For health sciences students, the research experiences continue on into year three, when classes may conduct community-based research for outside organizations, and potentially in year four, as part of some students’ larger capstone project. (Health professions majors, on the other hand, spend their last two years working with the nearby Mayo Clinic.)

Outside of their courses, students can also contribute to ongoing faculty research, get involved with research at Mayo, or even locate opportunities elsewhere in the country. Right now, several students are helping Kristin Osiecki, PhD, assistant professor with a focus in public health, study the prevalence and prevention of lead exposure. Others are joining Yuko Taniguchi, senior teaching specialist in writing, as she teams up with researchers from Mayo to examine how art and writing can provide therapeutic benefits to mental health.

Rethinking Assumptions

When students arrive at UMR, the majority expect to become a health care provider, like a physician, nurse, or physical therapist, Ratliff-Crain said. Research experiences help reveal how broadly the health sciences go beyond these options.

“Students know they’re interested in these health-related issues, they know that they want to make a difference and have an impact on people,” he said. “They don’t come in thinking about research as something that’s going to help make them a better provider, and yet it’s hard to think of a profession out there anymore that doesn’t require information-based decision making—in essence, research.”

Research also provides an opportunity for students to fail. Despite its negative connotation, failure isn’t an endpoint, Ratliff-Crain said, but a beginning point. It forces students to rethink their assumptions, approach their questions differently, and learn from the experience.

Many students come to understand how beneficial research can be for their futures, said Jenny Casper, UMR’s director of community engagement and career development. They realize that the discovery of new knowledge can influence the work they will do as a practitioner or in other health-related roles.

“The skills related to research are transferrable,” Casper said. “Students can use them in the many different career pathways they choose to pursue in the health-related fields.”

Research poster fair at UMR

Discovering Research Itself

Knowing how important research experiences are, UMR faculty and staff aim to ensure they are accessible to all students, despite financial challenges or other barriers. Nearly half of UMR’s first-year students are the first in their families to attend college and over a third are students of color—both of these populations, statistically, are less likely to be involved in research. That’s something the UMR community is working to change, Casper said.

“We’re trying to build a culture of research involvement among students traditionally underrepresented,” she said, adding that UMR now has a student-led research club on campus. “It’s exciting to see students realize that they love research and seek out further opportunities.”

Across the board, undergraduate research is about challenging students to step away from their long-held roles as consumers of information—where they absorb what they learn in class and reflect it for a grade—for something more proactive and exploratory, Ratliff-Crain said.

“Research is about shifting that to become a creator of information,” he said. “One of the things that students will discover is that they have become the expert in the room. It flips that whole idea of who you are as a student.”