Early Bloomers

The College's ASURE program affords undergrads with singularly hands-on training.

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Freshmen enrolled in the Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Research Experience (ASURE) program are getting much more than just an early glimpse into all they could accomplish at a Research 1 institution like Indiana University. They're also enjoying the kinds of real-world lab experiences usually reserved for graduate-level students.

Set to go into its third year, ASURE is the brainchild of Paul Gutjahr, associate dean for the arts and humanities and undergraduate education and a professor of English at IU. “I think research is often this nebulous thing for undergrads,” Gutjahr explains. “They kind of know it gets done, but they don't really know that it differs significantly by field and what it might look like.”

ASURE students gain both early visibility into various modes of research and greater proximity to world-class faculty.

“We're providing a research opportunity for students who think they're interested in research but have not done any research before,” says Richard Hardy, a professor of biology and the ASURE program’s associate director. “They get the opportunity to find out what it's like very early in their college careers, rather than waiting until their junior year or something.”

While schools such as the University of Texas and Georgia State have begun to implement similar programs, these have been largely science-focused.

“We wanted to do sciences and non-sciences, because the fact of the matter is the humanities and social sciences do a lot of research, too,” Gutjahr notes. “It just looks different. You don't have a Bunsen burner. You don't have monkeys or fruit flies.” 

To that end, students can apply to the ASURE Sciences, ASURE Psychological and Brain Sciences, or ASURE Interdisciplinary academic tracks. During the first semester, students learn how to interpret and conduct research. Second semester “lab” courses are often more self-directed and experiment-oriented.

The ASURE program provides freshmen with hands-on research experience as soon as they arrive at IU.

Sharper focus

For his part, Hardy coordinates the ASURE Sciences labs and is quick to note that students aren't participating in canned experiments with pre-determined outcomes. Instead, students develop their own research directions with guidance from Research Educators Megan Murphy and Mike Manzella.

During the 2019-2020 academic year, ASURE Sciences labs were split into six sections of 25 students each. “Next year we're upping that to 30 [each], but that's where it's going to stop, because we still want that low student-to-faculty number,” Manzella says.

“Because we have small sets of students for multiple semesters in a row, we get to know them as they're developing their skills and figuring out their future plans,” Murphy adds.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that many of the program’s students change their focus along the way.

“What we're finding is that [ASURE] students will change their majors, but we see things like a shift from biology to human biology or from biotechnology to microbiology,” Hardy says.

In 2018, Aimee Lee began her academic career as a biochemistry major. “I don't know why, but I thought if you wanted to go into the sciences, you had to be a biochemistry major — and that lasted for maybe two weeks,” she laughs. “Then I was thinking of becoming pre-med, so I changed my major to human biology.” 

And then? Lee applied for ASURE — and subsequently found her niche in microbiology.

In ASURE at the same time as Lee, Logan Geyman also switched his focus.

“When I started the ASURE program and actually got to the bench, I realized I wanted to do molecular biology,” he says. “I want to go to medical school and specialize in infectious disease. My ultimate goal is to work part-time clinically in a hospital with pediatrics patients who have really severe infectious diseases. I also want to do public health research and research on novel drug therapies.”

“What we're finding is that [ASURE] students will change their majors, but we see things like a shift from biology to human biology or from biotechnology to microbiology,” says ASURE Associate Director Rich Hardy.

Ripple effects

After his stint in ASURE, Geyman was awarded a summer scholarship enabling him to continue his hands-on lab work. He and Lee were paired up with Department of Biology Assistant Professor Julia van Kessel.

“I’ve always admired [van Kessel’s] research,” Geyman says. “We worked on a process called quorum-sensing, which is how bacteria communicate with each other.”

Now the students are included as authors on a manuscript recently submitted to the Journal of Bacteriology for review. “We actually got comments back, so we have to work on the writing,” Geyman says. “After we do this round of edits, it should be good.”

“Sophomores are publishing [academic] papers!” Hardy exclaims. “Those are students from our first [ASURE] class. It's the first time, but hopefully, if this is anything to go by, it will not be the last.”

ASURE has had other ripple effects, too.

“If you start giving students — especially in the sciences — a really good lab experience in their first year, they expect that kind of stuff their whole time here,” Gutjahr says. “So, departments like chemistry and biology are starting to have to rethink what their upperclassman labs are looking like. That's been exciting, because everyone is upping their game.”

Prescient programming

But that game isn't limited to the hard sciences. Department of English Professor Vivian Nun Halloran is a food studies and contemporary literature scholar who recently taught an ASURE lab called “Taste of the Nation” for the Interdisciplinary track.

“Most students I've talked to who are not in the sciences are intrigued by the fact that there is research in the other disciplines,” says Halloran, who also serves as the College's associate dean for diversity and inclusion. “A lot of people say, 'Oh, English. I'll read books.' They don't realize what the faculty do to conduct research. Social science research is also not immediately legible to them, so I think they are intrigued by the possibility of a chance to be in a 'lab' setting.”

ASURE Director Paul Gutjhar speaks to a group of students during freshmen orientation.

Halloran organized her class around the theme of victory gardens and food rations. With a nod to the global coronavirus pandemic, she says, “Little did I know that we would be doing a bit of that at the end of this semester.” 

The indefinite closure of the IU campus necessitated that Halloran and other ASURE instructors pivot to accommodate online instruction.

She combined both archival research with hands-on activities to illustrate the ways food studies scholarship is practiced. Halloran also familiarized students with the kinds of questions that researchers in the humanities ask. 

“Fortunately, I'd already had them wrap their heads around the notion that we could conduct archival research both by physically visiting archives but also by consulting digital archives online,” she says.

What's more, the lab group had previously gathered to test various assumptions about food by cooking recipes from cookbooks and ration books from World Wars I and II.

And to teach students how to effectively articulate research questions? Halloran had assigned The Joy of Search.

“It's by one of the Google executives, and what I like about it is that it very clearly models how to make an effective query and then how to vet the sources that result from a query. I thought that was an important set of skills for students at the beginning of their college journey — and it proved to be very, very useful, since we had to stay home after spring break.”

What's next?

It's unclear whether or how a long-term closure of the IU campus will affect ASURE. Nevertheless, Gutjahr has big plans for the program. 

“We want to make this available to at least 75 percent of incoming freshmen who are direct-admits to the College,” he says. “That would be a recruiting tool: 'You come here and you can do this.'” Additional tracks for mathematics, sociology, and other academic areas are also in the works.

Expanding ASURE offerings shouldn't be difficult. In fact, Gutjahr has had to turn interested faculty away.

“You give them a chance to work in small settings with motivated students, and they are all in,” he says. “They really do care about students and they are incredibly generous with their time and with their knowledge. I come away from visiting their classes or talking with them and I think, 'This is why we got into this business.' It's very inspiring.”

Susan M. Brackney

Susan M. Brackney holds a B.A. in English from Indiana University. A professional writer since 1995, she has written for Boy Scouts, stoners, interventional radiologists, would-be beekeepers, depressives, the one percent, and many other walks of life. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discover, Organic Gardening, Hobby Farms, and Indianapolis Monthly Magazine, among others. Brackney is also a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and has published four nonfiction books, including Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet. Reach her at writer@susanbrackney.com.