The University of Iowa’s strategic plan calls on the university to perform high-impact research and to provide a transformative academic experience that educates all UI students to be engaged citizens. Hundreds of faculty and staff at Iowa are quietly and busily teaching students to be inquisitive and to strive for discovery.
For decades, Robert Kirby has met with prospective students, coordinated with and trained faculty on mentoring undergraduate researchers, and collaborated with campus partners to expand access to and participation in campus research for undergraduate students.
“Research is just one of those tremendously important parts of what students are able to do at a place like Iowa,” says Kirby, adjunct associate professor of psychology and the director of the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU). “People like to say that students involved in research have higher grade point averages and are more likely to graduate in four years, but what I like to highlight is that students involved in research are more likely to get to know a faculty member on campus. They’re more likely to raise questions in class. They’re more deeply engaged in their education and that’s going to benefit them in so many different ways.”
Kirby’s most recent efforts are the creation of new undergraduate seminars on research, which the ICRU steering committee—made up of faculty from numerous disciplines—helped design. He says that many students don’t consider research when they envision their college career, and he wants to help them see that research is within everyone’s reach because it involves asking questions more than filling test tubes.
“We ask so many questions when we’re young,” says Kirby, “and then we become too concerned with already known answers and we forget that discovering new answers is one of the most important things we can do.”
Even before he became the ICRU director in 2006, Kirby has connected undergraduates with faculty looking to mentor students in research. His many success stories include James Ankrum, a UI assistant professor of biomedical engineering, who first met Kirby in 2003 as a 17-year-old high school student touring campus.
Ankrum came to the UI from Eldora, Iowa, and was inspired by his father’s back pain to study the effects of large machinery vibrations on the human body, attempting to discover whether people who drive cars, trucks, or tractors all day suffer any negative effects. He went on to receive a master of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and a PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after which he returned to the UI and now conducts research in the Fraternal Order of Eagles Diabetes Research Center at the UI’s Pappajohn Biomedical Discovery Building.
Ankrum supervises five undergraduates, four graduate students, and one postdoctoral scholar as he investigates the possibilities of using live cells as therapeutic agents for people suffering from diabetes.
“If we’re going to help our students here at Iowa become top-tier candidates, then they need to have opportunities to experience what research actually is,” says Ankrum. “And you get that by actually being in a lab day-in and day-out, experiencing the joys, the setbacks, and the confusion that is inherent to any kind of research as you try to discover what nobody else has seen before.”
Kirby says about 30 percent of undergraduates at the UI conduct or assist research. According to the UI strategic plan, research is considered a high-impact practice (HIP), which the plan defines as programs that require students to integrate learning across contexts. These programs help students extend what they learn in college to the challenges they may face later in life.
The strategic plan also considers service learning, internships, writing-intensive courses, academic campus employment, and other activities, to be HIPs. The strategic plan sets a goal for increasing the number of undergraduates who participate in at least three HIPs before they graduate to 60 percent.