Why research should matter to undergraduates

By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow

Recently, the University of Florida was named one of the top undergraduate research institutions by the Council on Undergraduate Research. This distinction reflects the university’s commitment to advancing research and driving innovation across Florida and the globe. But for the average undergraduate student, who is busy studying for classes, juggling extracurriculars and preparing for professional careers, why, exactly, does research matter?

Alana Rawlinson, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor, licensed psychologist, and director of the college’s honors program.

Alana Rawlinson, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of clinical and health psychology and director of the college’s honors program, offers some compelling reasons.

“Research gives students a different set of skills. It helps with problem-solving, thinking critically, and how to scientifically answer big questions,” she said. “Even if a student isn’t going to be a researcher as their career, it’s important to know how to be an effective consumer of research.”

The PHHP honors program offers undergraduate students the opportunity to gain practical research experience with mentors across different health disciplines.

One of these students is Gabriela Sepulveda, a combined bachelor’s in public health and master’s in public health student, who recently earned a second-place undergraduate student poster presentation award at PHHP Days for her research on pregnancy awareness and prenatal care among women in Rwanda.

“I’m very thankful to the honors program because it facilitated and pushed me to do research,” Sepulveda said. “This experience has made me more aware of cultural differences and given me qualitative analysis skills.”

An aspiring physician assistant, Sepulveda said the knowledge gained through her honors research project and her studies in public health and sociology have prepared her to provide empathetic care to her future OB/GYN patients.

For Bailey Fawcett, a senior in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences, conducting research as an undergraduate student in communication sciences and disorders has helped to prepare her for a clinical career. Her honors thesis titled “Nonword repetition and memory for digits: Are they predictors of sight word reading and decoding?” was recently recognized at the 25th Annual Spring 2024 Undergraduate Research Symposium. She won the Center for Undergraduate Research 2024 Best Paper Award.

Gabriela Sepulveda, a combined B.P.H.-M.P.H. student and aspiring physician assistant, presented her research at the 2024 PHHP Days.

Research, Rawlinson says, offers students like Fawcett and Sepulveda a learning experience that’s unlike anything else. It’s a form of experiential learning that extends far beyond the classroom.

“At PHHP, we have wet labs, interventional studies, AI research, community-based participatory research and international public health projects, all with undergraduate involvement. With so many options, there’s a place for every student to find their niche.”

Rawlinson shares more about the benefits of undergraduate research, the honors program at PHHP, and how research has shaped her own career.

Question: How does involvement in research enhance an undergraduate student’s academic experience and prepare them for future endeavors?

Answer: Research adds so much richness to the learning process and gives students a unique product that is different from their classes or internships. It can help make students more competitive for graduate or professional schools as well by preparing them for graduate thesis or capstone projects. Ultimately, involvement in research makes students more well-rounded learners and helps them to appreciate all that goes into a study from the very beginning — from writing a grant proposal to the statistics, publishing and science communication. I think it’s important to see every aspect of a study, know all that goes into it, and be able to critically evaluate it. For future health professionals, especially, they need to be able to stay current with the literature in their field.

Bailey Fawcett, B.H.S., aspiring speech-language pathologist, won the Center for Undergraduate Research 2024 Best Paper Award.

Q: What are some benefits to participating in research that students might not have considered?

A: There are networking and mentorship benefits to being involved in research by taking advantage of collaborations, and the long-term professional relationships that teams develop when working together on projects. Many students make professional connections with their mentors, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows in their lab and professionals at conferences.

Q: How did participating in undergraduate research impact your professional journey?

A: As an undergraduate, I liked balancing research with my classes as a way to gain more experiential learning in psychology. I was fortunate to become involved in research early in my undergraduate career, which allowed a depth of training that confirmed my career goals and better prepared me for conducting research more independently in graduate school. Undergraduate research helped me in the long-term too; there are personal and professional skills I developed working on my own honors thesis experience that I continue use when conducting research in my current position.

Q: What opportunities are available for undergraduate students to get involved in research at both UF and PHHP?

A: Students tell me that it can be overwhelming to get involved in a research lab at a large university like UF. In my Honors Seminar, if students don’t have mentors, I guide them through contacting faculty, refining their CVs and how to approach a meeting or interview. To get involved in research, I have a couple of recommendations:

  • Use the Center for Undergraduate Research! They have many resources: peer-to-peer mentors, workshops, a database of faculty who are actively looking for students, and grants/scholarships.
  • Find out whether your classmates are involved in research. Talk to people in your major who are a few years ahead and ask how they become involved in research, what they do in lab, and if there are any openings in their lab, etc.
  • See if there is a particular course or professor who is doing research that interests you. Go to their office hours and ask them about their latest studies. Get to know the grants they are working on, read their publications, and talk to them about what they are researching. All of the centers and colleges have worked hard to prioritize and get the word out about how important research skills are, and students are taking advantage of these resources and opportunities available.
  • Get involved in research as early in your academic career as possible. Students have the opportunity to get better training by having more depth in a research lab. I’ve known undergraduate students who have changed their career trajectories because of their research experiences.
  • Apply for the PHHP Honors Program! We help to guide students to complete an honors thesis during their senior year. We have a seminar where speakers come and talk about opportunities for student research, as well as helping students find a project that they can work on for their honors thesis. We’ve also offered research expos where faculty who are actively recruiting for their labs come to talk, show what they are working on, and bring research materials.