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Why Student Research? Because Discovery Happens Here!

by Associate Dean Abby Benninghoff


Associate Dean helping student in the lab

Abby with student

During my recent interviews to serve in an administrative role for the College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences, I was asked by more than one person, “How did you get your start in scientific research?”  I suppose that part of my answer rests in the science TV shows I remember watching as a kid with my dad (anyone remember 3-2-1 Contact?), or that influential science teacher from high school (thank you Ms. Mildred Ketron!).  Yet, my passion for research – the research bug as I often call it – was spawned while I was an undergraduate student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. I was fortunate to be a student in the biology program at the same time that Professor Neil Greenberg launched the Threshold Scholars Program.  In this program, promising young undergraduate science students on the threshold of their professional careers engaged in an intensive mentoring program and performed individual research projects. That hands-on experience was indeed infectious. I caught that research bug.

I learned how to fractionate liver samples to get the genetic material from the nucleus, to use radioactive isotopes to tag specific pieces of DNA, and to use a technique called electrophoresis to separate out specific proteins that were stuck to those DNA fragments. Yes, it was all highly technical – and I loved it. I loved every frustrating failed attempt, because when the method eventually worked, I could proudly show my result to my mentor, who seemed more pleased by my thrill of accomplishment than the result itself. I learned much about the scientific topic I was given to explore, but so much more about resilience and persevering through challenges, about how to see my way around roadblocks and find creative ways to solve problems.  See, it is those life skills that make engaging in research so very much worth the time and effort for our students. These are the kinds of opportunities available to students at a high research capacity, public land-grant university, like Utah State.

Through a research experience in CAAS, our students cultivate lasting relationships with our outstanding faculty, who are among the best and brightest thinkers working to solve agricultural challenges for our community, state, nation, and the world. Our students can engage in research in the laboratory, on the farm, in the field, in the research kitchen, in the veterinary clinic, at a community park, in a home garden, in a middle school, in a greenhouse – the possibilities truly are endless.  Our students can apply what they learn from their course work in these settings, and through research gain highly valuable and marketable skills to propel them on a fast track toward job placement and career success. The college journey can be so wonderfully enriched through research, through those immensely gratifying moments when a student finds an answer or solves a problem that pushes the field forward. 

Discovery happens here.  At Utah State, we have the second oldest undergraduate research program in the United States, and undergraduates from our college are leading the way. To highlight a few: This year, Boston Swan was selected to present her research about the effects of different colors of light on plant growth at the Research on Capitol Hill event during the 2018 Utah legislative session.  Boston’s work contributes to findings in Professor Bruce Bugbee’s laboratory that impact food producers involved in vertical farming, with an ultimate goal to develop methods for food production in space. A member of the Navajo Nation and a non-traditional USU undergraduate, Benson Ambrose, became interested in research as part of the Summer Undergraduate Agricultural Biotechnology Research Experience program in the Department of Animal, Dairy and Veterinary Sciences. Benson has worked with his mentor, Professor Dirk Vanderwall, to study how controlling certain hormones can improve the performance of mares in competition. This year’s CAAS Undergraduate Scholar of the Year, Michaela Brubaker, and the Undergraduate Researcher of the Year, Liz Park, are working in my lab on a project to understand how a Western-type dietary pattern impacts gut inflammation and risk of colorectal cancer via changes in the gut microbiome and to identify foods that may help mitigate this risk. Yes, discovery happens here! Solutions happen here!  And our students are working on the front lines helping USU research faculty find answers to today’s most pressing problems and exciting challenges.