STEM Scholars providing research opportunities at home for aspiring scientists
By: Colby Wilson November 1, 2023
As the series of features on students who traversed the globe this summer shows, Austin Peay is serious about getting its students into labs worldwide to open doors and allow students to build a network and gain practical, real-world experience as they chart their careers and prepare for life after college.
But we also have professors committed to training a little closer to home.
This is the mission of the STEM Scholars program, which aims to get students started on research projects as soon as they get to campus. Open to freshmen and run jointly by Dr. Anuradha Pathiranage of the chemistry department and GIS Center Director Mike Wilson, the focus is to help high-achieving academics transition to university life by connecting them with upper-level College of STEM students, faculty and staff while giving them a platform to begin research early in their collegiate careers.
Students don’t need much beyond an interest in research and a STEM major to get involved; they are then matched with faculty mentors based on those interests and given a basic assignment for their first semester, in essence allowing them to dip their toes into academic research while still maintaining their classroom responsibilities.
"[Students] are always trying to figure out where to start when it comes to research," Pathiranage said. "Some might feel like they don't have time to start the research because it is a lot of work during the first year. The point is not to make it hard, but to make it enjoyable, to pair them with an advisor and a simple project, to get started; if they like it, they can keep developing it all four years."
STEM Scholars provides funding for the project and monetary support for students to present their projects at conferences and get practical presenting experience with regular STEM Scholar demonstrations on Fridays. Many of these demonstrations are open to students curious about research and getting practical, hands-on experience in a lab setting.
Not only are they enjoyable for participants, but they further solidify for students that the work isn't just busy work but work that can be practical and fun.
“We have to make it fun,” Pathiranage continued. “We want our students to get a taste for research, and then maybe they will find something they're passionate about, and they'll continue."
To build this program into more of a community than allowing young researchers to find themselves isolated, STEM Scholars participate in weekly meetings and have a specialized version of APSU 1000 to place them with peers going through the same experience. In its third year, the program directors are beginning to see the longer-term dividends pay off for students who have been part of the program.
"We're seeing a drastic change, just from one year to the next," Wilson said. "These are all high-achieving students, but now they're also gaining confidence, they're trying different things, and in turn, we're trying different things as well, now that we've learned a little more about what works and what doesn't."
Program expansion is the goal for Pathiranage and Wilson this year. They’re beginning to target students seeking associate degrees and those outside the traditional STEM majors. There is precedent for this; Emelia Beck, who switched from biochemistry to animation heading into her sophomore year, is a regular Friday presenter with STEM Scholars and someone who Pathiranage took to Indianapolis to present her research on indigo dye and its derivatives at last spring's American Chemical Society Conference. Last year, multiple STEM Scholars presented their research projects at the TAS meeting, with participants like Ashton Cromwell, who collaborated with Dr. Pathiranage, and Amber King, who worked alongside Dr. Raman Sahi. Additionally, STEM Scholars Laina Skaggs and Chloe Hemmelgarn, who partnered with Dr. Sahi, showcased their work at the Eastern North American Region ENAR Poster Conference in Nashville. These STEM Scholars engage in diverse collaborations with faculty across various STEM disciplines.
The success has made the existing scholars and mentors something of an ambassador group for the program. This fall, faculty who had participated in the program in previous years brought other faculty to the initial matchup meeting to expose colleagues to the program and potential research assistants among the new undergrads.
Innovative initiatives, such as Dr. Samadi-Dana's virtual reality modeling of chemical structures, Dr. Jody Alberd's 3D Printed Submersible Drone, and Dr. Pallikonda's electric Go-Cart project equipped with GPS navigation, provide STEM Scholars with invaluable hands-on experience across a range of disciplines. These projects aim to prepare STEM Scholars for their future careers through interdisciplinary collaboration and practical applications.
Any new student wishing to join STEM Scholars can apply on the CoSTEM page at apsu.edu when applications open again in March 2024; any student accepted at Austin Peay who declares a STEM major (or has a STEM academic interest) and possesses either a 3.75 high school GPA or Science Reasoning or Math ACT scores of 27 or higher is eligible.
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