USU’s Undergraduate Research Fellows share insights about schools, research and family ties

by Jacoba Mendelkow

Undergraduate Research Fellows are an elite group of students at Utah State University. Ambitious and making a difference in their communities and the world, they are our best examples at USU—the older siblings in the USU family to whom other students look. According to associate vice president for research Joyce Kinkead, “these students are exemplars in undergraduate research to other students.” As the big brothers and sisters at USU, Research Fellows show other students undergraduate research and scholarly work in practice. It isn’t surprising then, that of the 100-plus Undergraduate Research Fellows at USU, there are four sets of actual siblings. Perhaps being an example isn’t just a metaphor.

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The sun was blinding—but without heat—on the chilly day in early fall when I sat down to talk with one of the four researcher sibling pairs at Utah State. Hannah and Jesse Spinner both came to Utah State on Undergraduate Research Fellowships. Hannah, a junior in nutrition

science working on antiviral research, plans to attend a pharmacy graduate program and is two years older than Jesse, a freshman majoring in biology. He’s preparing to attend medical school after completing his undergraduate degree.

A bee clumsily zipped among the three of us as we sat on a wooden bench in the sun. It zinged over to Hannah and then to Jesse.  “They were supportive of education and made sure we stayed sharp,” Jesse said of their lawyer and college instructor parents when asked if their parents are researchers.  Hannah added that as high school students they were encouraged to take honors and AP classes. But both Hannah and Jesse think that AP courses are not the only reason they were selected to be Research Fellows as incoming freshmen from Century High School in Pocatello, Idaho. It was a combination of things that included AP tests, course grades and strong applications. Preparatory interviews with their parents helped, too, Jesse said, and this combination is what he believes helped him secure his place as an undergraduate Research Fellow.

The process for selection of Research Fellows happens annually at Utah State during “Scholars Day,” jointly sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Program and Admissions Office. Students who have submitted the necessary documentation (including an essay, a questionnaire and a resume) are invited to interview with faculty and other prospective Research Fellows. If selected, students receive $1,000 annually for four years, are given the opportunity to work closely with faculty mentors, and get their hands on research.

“If it weren’t for the Research Fellowship, I wouldn’t know how important research is,” said Jesse. “Working in a lab is a good job. I treat my research as a job, and it’s better than my last job,” where he was a cashier at a swimming pool. “It’s easy to get involved in research here.” Hannah continued: “It is a perfect job for a student and ties in to what you are doing in school. It’s important to find a lab you fit into well.” Hannah has worked in two labs as an Undergraduate Research Fellow: first, in USU’s Utah Water Research Laboratory, and now with graduate students studying antiviral drugs for West Nile Virus and Hepatitis B with John Morrey in the Institute for Antiviral Research. She helps test drugs sent from other universities on cell cultures, lab mice, and hamsters and is happy to be working on a project that is closely related to her education and career ambitions.

With their educational and career goals in mind, both Hannah and Jesse say that they’ve gained experience as Research Fellows. Jesse believes that being a student researcher and getting into research early as an undergraduate will help him as an applicant for medical school. He’s done the research and looked it up; undergraduate research is something important to include on his application. “Working in a lab teaches critical thinking; there isn’t an answer book,” Hannah said. “You have to depend on other people to give you help.”

And that is what Hannah and Jesse do for each other—they give each other help. Although they are not each other’s first researcher (in the way writers have a first editor, musicians have a first listener), they admit to looking out for each other. Hannah came to USU first; she’d been through the selection process for Research Fellows a couple of years before Jesse, and she encouraged him to apply. Jesse looks up to Hannah—she’s “a cool sister,” Jesse said. To which Hannah responded the way a sibling sometimes does, “Jesse is smarter than I am. But, I got him where he is today.” Following examples and offering good advice is something the Spinner siblings do—and there is something familial about that.

Hannah and Jesse are only one of four sets of sibling Research Fellows at USU. Another sibling set, Scarlet Fronk, an English major and her brother, Aaron, a biology student, grew up in Providence, Utah. Aaron is older than Scarlet by a year and a half, and they share a close relationship but “are very different in many ways: I dabble in the sciences, but feel my true talents lie in the humanities; Aaron dabbles in the humanities, but his passion is for the sciences, in biology particularly,” said Scarlet. They share their research—bouncing ideas off each other and sharing in their discoveries—the animals Aaron’s been studying, the books that Scarlet has read and the papers she writes. Aaron is living in Slovakia for two years, and Scarlet is working on projects that include writing a musical set in fifteen-century England and translating a medieval manuscript from USU’s Special Collections to uncover more about the family who owned the manuscript. She plans to visit the family’s home on her trip to France this year. Her research has taught her to “find things out on my own and pursue information through a variety of methods.”

USU’s third set of Undergraduate Research Fellows, Peter and Gregory Griffin, grew up in Medina, Ohio and both participated in the Young Epidemiology Scholars competition where they studied different trends in teen health. Both study biochemistry. Peter is older than Gregory and had left for a religious mission before Gregory started college. Gregory works with Joan Hevel on the PRMT 1 project (studying protein arginine methyltransferase). When Peter began at USU, he was involved in researching anti-virals with bird flu and SARS. As an Undergraduate Research Fellow, Gregory has “gained skills involving critical thinking and thinking outside the box.” Gregory credits the undergraduate Research Fellows program for making him a better student because he’s had to “learn beyond the general course work.”

Nathaniel and Jeremiah Harris are the the fourth Research Fellow sibling set. Nathaniel, an economics and pre-law dual-major researches “puffery laws”: claims so outrageous that all who hear them know they are false; claims like: smoking makes you sexy, or Nike shoes make you fast. He will attend USU for a Master’s degree in economics after graduation in spring 2009 and will work on a law degree after that. Jeremiah, an economics finance major with a math minor, researches probability analysis and statistics to project how much money a specific company will make over a period of time. He, too, will graduate in 2009 and is currently preparing his list of graduate school options and will apply to the top 25 graduate schools in his area. As with the Spinners, the Fronks, and the Griffins, Nate and Jeremiah becoming sibling Research Fellows is more than simple coincidence. These brothers, like the others, are utilizing and maximizing their educations at USU by working as Research Fellows. They are carving out their own ground while continuing to support and help each other, and, in doing so, are making the most of their education and happily discuss the benefits.

The physical similarities in the Harris brothers are striking: both blonde and nearly the same height. As the two oldest boys in a family of five siblings, Jeremiah and Nate have little doubt that their younger siblings will attend college—and even graduate school.

The Research Fellowship for Nate and Jeremiah was, in the beginning of their college education, simply a scholarship with extra money to pay for college. That isn’t the way they see it now. “You do the research, you get into graduate school, you make more money,” Jeremiah said. “As ‘business’ majors, that is something we think about,” said Nate. And there are other things they both think about: they bounce ideas off each other on all things business—stocks and investments, for example. But they also are interested and involved in each other’s lives: they play racquetball once a week and last year they lived together until Jeremiah got married. It is easy to see that their relationship goes beyond scholarship, and they wanted to make sure I knew this.

The benefits of being an Undergraduate Research Fellow are significant, according to Nate and Jeremiah. “Learning the research process now gives you a leg up on other students,” said Nate. “Plus, it helps your learning and thought process by forcing you to look at something more critically.” “It puts us in a place to maximize our education,” Jeremiah said. He is confident that the research he has done while at USU makes him a strong candidate for admittance into the graduate program of his choice. It is the hands-on experience—the mentoring and research—that allows Undergraduate Research Fellows at USU to be successful after graduation. But perhaps for these four pairs it is more than that. With their willingness and desire to help and mentor each other, and the positive relationships they’ve developed through their formative home years, these students show the importance of inquiry and inquisitiveness that feeds their desire for research. And there is something familial about that.