Undergraduate Research: Faculty Scholarship and Undergraduate Education

Peter J. Collings

A meaningful research experience is an important part of a quality undergraduate education in physics and astronomy. It is the responsibility of faculty to offer such opportunities, just as it is their responsibility to offer a sequence of courses and laboratories. There need not be a conflict between research productivity and the participation of undergraduates. But for this to be the case, careful planning by faculty as well as the use of faculty skills as teachers and researchers are required. I have been supervising undergraduates in my research laboratory for almost four decades. In this article I explain a little about my research program and then go into more detail concerning the aspects of faculty scholarship and undergraduate education that come into play when undergraduates conduct research.

Experimental Soft Condensed Matter Research

Soft condensed matter research concerns fluids that are more complex than simple liquids. There is quite a large range of fluids that fit into this category; polymers, liquid crystals, emulsions, and colloidal suspensions are some examples. My research for the last 38 years has concerned liquid crystals, a state of matter that is fluid, but for which the molecules retain some degree of orientational order and sometimes positional order as they diffuse throughout the sample. As a specific compound is heated in the solid phase, at a precise temperature it undergoes a phase transition to the liquid crystal phase, losing most of the orientational and positional order it had in the solid phase. At a higher temperature, the liquid crystal phase undergoes a transition to the liquid phase, at which point it loses all orientational and positional order. The degree of order in a liquid crystal is small, so in some senses it resembles a liquid more than a solid. This is borne out by the latent heats of transition. A typical latent heat for the solid to liquid crystal phase transition is about 300 J/g, while a typical latent heat for the liquid crystal to liquid phase transition is only 30 J/g.

The presence of order makes properties of a liquid crystal depend on direction, so rather than being isotropic, they are anisotropic.  For example, light polarized along the preferred direction of orientation has a different index of refraction from light polarized perpendicular to the preferred direction. This makes liquid crystals birefringent. In fact, the amount of order in a liquid crystal can be determined by measuring the difference in properties along different directions. Early in my career, I used the fact that the splitting of nuclear magnetic resonance lines depends on the molecular orientation relative to the magnetic field to measure the order in a liquid crystal. More recently, I utilized the difference in the absorption of light polarized along different directions (linear dichroism) to determine the degree of order.

Compounds that form liquid crystals when pure are called thermotropic liquid crystals. The active material in liquid crystal displays is a mixture of several such compounds. Liquid crystal phases are also formed when certain molecules are dissolved in a solvent. The most common examples are soaps and phospholipids, which form structures of ordered molecules when mixed with water. The structures in soap solutions are where oils can be “dissolved” and the double layer of phospholipids is the basic structure of the cell membrane. When such structures form in solution, they are called lyotropic liquid crystals. One less studied example of these is the liquid crystal phase formed when certain dye molecules form aggregates in water. These aggregates result from the spontaneous stacking of molecules, and it is the aggregates that have orientational and sometimes positional order as opposed to the molecules in a thermotropic liquid crystal.

These spontaneously aggregating systems have been the subject of the investigations in my laboratory for the last 7 or 8 years. The work is quite interdisciplinary, with techniques and concepts drawn about equally from physics and chemistry. Soft condensed matter research is characterized by the use of many techniques. Recently, my students and I have utilized absorption spectroscopy, x-ray diffraction, polarization and confocal microscopy, and magnetic birefringence. Most of this work has been preformed at Swarthmore College, but some has been done at the University of Pennsylvania and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University.

Typically 2 or 3 students work in my laboratory for ten weeks over the summer, and 1 or 2 students do experiments during the academic year. The stipends for the summer students come from various sources, including research grants from National Science Foundation and the Petroleum Research Fund, the Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program at the Laboratory for Research in the Structure of Matter at the University of Pennsylvania, grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to Swarthmore College, and Swarthmore College funds. On average, about two articles in peer-reviewed journals are published each year reporting on results from my laboratory, and undergraduates are co-authors on most of them.

A Faculty Member's Responsibility

Providing research opportunities for undergraduate students is part of a faculty member's responsibility for faculty at both research universities and predominately undergraduate institutions. Sometimes this responsibility is written into the contract; more often it is a specific criterion for promotion and tenure. In some cases this responsibility is only communicated verbally, especially at the time of hiring.

The reason more and more institutions are including undergraduate research as a responsibility of the faculty is that the quality of an undergraduate science program is increased by opportunities to conduct publishable research. There have been studies done to assess the outcomes from undergraduate research experiences, and all point to gains in self-confidence, motivation, and academic success [see S. H. Russell, M. P. Hancock, and J. McCullough, Science 316, 548, (2007) for example]. Many organizations have realized this and have issued statements supporting undergraduate research for as many physics and astronomy majors as possible. Two examples are the American Association of Physics Teachers and the Committee on Education of the American Physical Society.

Some major programs in physics require the writing of a thesis, which is often based on the research done by the student. Many other departments encourage all students to do research but don't require it, often instituting programs on campus to allow undergraduates to do research, and in addition, assisting their students as they apply for research experiences elsewhere.

It should be pointed out that providing undergraduates with research experiences should be seen as a responsibility of the institution also. Given the teaching and scholarship responsibilities of faculty, it is unrealistic to imagine that on their own faculty can provide such experiences to a large fraction of majors. Institutions must provide both financial and infrastructure support, whether it be funds for student stipends, administrative support for coordination of the undergraduate research program, or the necessary facilities to allow large numbers of undergraduates to participate in research.

Faculty Scholarship vs. Student Education

There certainly are challenges when faculty provide opportunities for undergraduates to participate in their research program. Some theoretical research requires mastery of advanced mathematical techniques and a firm understanding of advanced physics concepts. Some experimental research is done using equipment that is expensive, easily harmed, and requires an extensive amount of time to learn how to use correctly. Other experimental research is done off campus, at national facilities or the institutions of collaborators.

Many faculty have shown that these challenges can be overcome by careful planning. Proposals must include funds for what is necessary, whether it be equipment, stipends, travel money, or training activities. Over the years resources must be assembled so undergraduates can participate in the research either on campus during the academic year or off campus during vacations. Faculty also must pay careful attention to the wide range of research questions that are possible. Some may be more accessible to undergraduates and/or require a work schedule more compatible with the academic calendar. Finally, faculty must consider each particular undergraduate student, arranging a project and schedule that is appropriate considering the student's academic background and laboratory experience. This is an important task both before the undergraduate begins to do research and while the research is taking place.

Mentoring Undergraduate Research Students

The quality of an undergraduate research experience often depends on whether the research is at the forefront of current work in the field. Faculty members must use every means possible to keep their research program as productive as possible. All options should be utilized, including collaborations, the involvement of students at different levels of expertise (undergraduates, graduate students, post-doctoral fellows), sabbatical leaves, different locations, different parts of the academic year, and the number of researchers working at any time. Manuscripts must be written and submitted in a timely way. This is important both to keep the research an important part of the scientific enterprise and to give recognition to the people responsible for the research. The point here is that with proper planning the participation of undergraduates in a research program need not be at odds with productivity. In fact, careful planning can produce just the opposite outcome. Undergraduates working on a research project can actively contribute to it in important ways.

No teacher walks into class without preparing ahead of time for what is going to be presented. Likewise, no faculty member should engage undergraduates in research without preparing adequately in ways that maximize the chance for a successful experience. This preparation may extend back as far as the selection of the research area, choosing one for which it is easier to provide meaningful opportunities for undergraduates. Deciding which of the possible projects an undergraduate will work on is another element of the planning process. Such a decision must take into account the background and goals of the student, assigning the student to a project for which there is a good possibility of success. Finally, the planning process must include an early consideration of what resources must be in place for a productive research experience. The time undergraduates can devote to research is usually quite restricted. Time lost waiting for equipment and supplies to arrive must be kept to a minimum.

Careful planning must be taking place even while the undergraduate conducts research. Being new to the field of research, it is important that background information, whether it be the theoretical foundation or prior work in the field, be acquired by the student. This can be a formidable challenge, as most students do not know how to read the scientific literature and how to do a literature search. In many cases this is best done through activities that are not directly necessary to the research program, like taking the time to go through a few critical papers in the field, not just to give some background to the project, but to show students how to read research articles.

Thought should also be given to how the student can gain expertise in a gradual and systematic way. What tasks done early will allow the student to take on other tasks later? What order of research activities will help to build up some independence in the student? Expecting students to perform tasks for which they are not sufficiently prepared can be exceedingly discouraging, with the potential to sabotage the entire research experience. Faculty members should also look for opportunities for students to make some research decisions. This is exceedingly important, since this is the best way for the student to become invested in the research question and understand the scientific process. This can be a real challenge when collaborations are involved. If only the faculty member discusses the project with collaborators, the students are missing a real opportunity to observe and perhaps play a role in the scientific enterprise. Finally, part of the research endeavor is the presentation and dissemination of the results. Faculty members should take advantage of opportunities for students to present their work orally and in some written form. Understanding how this is done is not something students can uncover on their own; they must be guided through the process of presenting their work.

Benefits of Undergraduate Research to Faculty

Providing meaningful research experiences to undergraduates is hard work, requiring skill as both a teacher and a researcher. Thankfully there are benefits to the faculty who take on this responsibility. Being able to allow undergraduates to participate in cutting-edge research can be an incentive to do those tasks that keep a faculty member's research program productive. Many faculty are dedicated to their students and go to great ends not to let them down. This motivation can be a wonderful means to maintain a successful research program.

Undergraduate students often have picked up some of the newest technology, which can be extremely useful at times in the research endeavor. I recall a student who arrived with experience with image processing, allowing her to develop a new capability for my laboratory. Often research requires time consuming and repetitive work; undergraduates are often very happy to be involved in such activities, because it is new to the student and because the fruits of their efforts are usually very visible. Plus, the cost to involve undergraduates in these aspects of a research program is quite low, and often they are capable of performing the work with as much care and accuracy as any other member of a research group.

Another benefit that at times can be very important is that with so little background and experience, undergraduates sometimes come up with ideas that others would not. I can think of numerous examples in my career where a question, remark, or suggestion of an undergraduate turned out to be crucial to success, especially because it was something I would not have thought of myself. Once after observing a student acquiring data that did not make sense to me, I left asking the student to compare the data to theory anyway. The material being investigated possessed a twisted structure and the literature stated that the twist was right-handed. The student did not remember this, and fit the theory to the data assuming a left-handed twist. The fit was excellent, and not only did it teach us the lesson of not believing everything in the literature, it also cleared up discrepancies in other data we had acquired on this material.

It is also true that involving undergraduates in research allows faculty members to do some riskier science. It is important for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows that their projects bear ample fruit in a reasonable amount of time. This is not the case for undergraduates, where obtaining results of some importance is not nearly as important. In fact, the quality of the research experience for undergraduates is only loosely coupled to the significance of the results they obtain. Many students who undertook unsuccessful or partially successful projects under my direction learned far more than many other students whose projects ended with publishable results in hand.

Finally, undergraduate students are likely to be the youngest members of a research group. Having these 18-22 year olds around provides an opportunity to stay in touch with the younger generation, and perhaps slow down the faculty member's aging process slightly!

Peter Collings is the Morris L. Clothier Professor of Physics in the Swarthmore College Department of Physics and Astronomy. His research specialties are liquid crystals, light scattering, self-assembly of biologically important molecules, and supramolecular chemistry. He is Chair of the APS Committee on Education.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.