Not many students can say that they befriended a janitor during their time as an undergraduate. Senior biology major Kylie Leffler, can however, thanks to late nights in the lab, along with being able to say that she’s completed an undergraduate research project.
“It’s a much more personalized experience than you would get in a classroom,” Leffler said of her research experience. “Even if you were to go and see your professors in office hours or study groups, (undergraduate research) is just totally different.”
Beginning in the spring of 2013, Leffler has worked with biology professor Ami Ahern-Rindell on several projects centered on undergraduate research. The capstone of this work has been her senior thesis, and acceptance into the Council on Undergraduate Research’s “Posters on the Hill” conference, where Leffler will present her findings to U.S. Senators.
Leffler began her undergraduate research venture when Ahern-Rindell approached her to write a book review on Undergraduate Research in the Scicences: Engaging Students in Real Science for the “CUR Quarterly, a publication of the Council on Undergraduate Research. She then earned a Murdock Scholarship to join Ahern-Rindell’s summer research team and take on a research project of her own.
“To be honest, (my favorite part of doing research) was probably working with my advisor,” Leffler said. “You get to know your professor as a person and as someone who’s so invested in the work that you are doing.”
Leffler’s research focused on a fatal genetic disorder, Gangliosidosis, as it was present in unique sheep models in hopes that it would give light to knowledge about this condition, which also affects humans. Being that the project was done the summer before her senior year, it naturally led to Leffler’s senior thesis on the same topic.
“I think it was just kind of generally understood that when you start research with Dr. AR, a thesis will come out of it,” Leffler said.
Undergraduate research is often said to add immensely to the learning students do in the classroom, and Leffler’s experience was no different.
“Being forced to take the initiative yourself not only helped me be more efficient in how I learn and how I think about things,” Leffler said, “but it has also given me the confidence boost that I can do things on my own and I can be resourceful, and then ask for help when I need it.”
Ahern-Rindell agreed that Leffler has grown in the process and contended that working with students can be beneficial to professors as well.
“One of the advantages of having students work with me is that they bring in these unique ideas. That’s one of the things that really excites me about working with students,” Ahern-Rindell said.
Leffler is now looking forward to presenting her research at the Posters on the Hill Conference and to pursuing her plans after graduation, the development of which she accredits to her undergraduate research experience.
“I was originally just planning on going the MD route, but I am now thinking about the MD-PhD program, specifically because of my experience with my research,” Leffler said. “It would combine the research aspect with my initial interest in medical school.”
Leffler and Ahern-Rindell agreed that undergraduate research can be a valuable asset to a student’s time at UP, and Leffler urges students in any field to seek out such opportunities.
“Even if you aren’t approached, at least ask about it,” Leffler said. “Take the initiative to approach a professor even if someone hasn’t approached you.”
Story by Clare Duffy