The benefits of research experiences for undergraduates are well known. The ability to collect and analyze original evidence is an essential transferrable skill. Research experience also is associated with improved communication skills (both oral and written), retention of course content, and an increased likelihood of lifelong learning. Students want the opportunity to engage in research experiences according to Dr. Eunkyung Muriel Lee, a faculty member in the Department of Health Sciences who surveyed the students in her epidemiology course. “Based on the survey, over 75% of students indicated that they were interested in research engagement; however, less than 3% reported having a research opportunity up to that point,” says Lee.
So how can more students gain access to these crucial research opportunities? Luckily, at UCF there are brilliant scholars and committed faculty like Dr. Lee who are developing innovative courses and tailored mentorship programs to give as many students as possible a chance to engage in the research process.
Dr. Lee joined UCF in 2017. Her own research focuses on the effect of cancer treatments, improving the quality of life for cancer survivors, the causes of cancer-related health disparities, and the link between diet and chronic diseases. In particular, she studies breast cancer patients who have undergone radiotherapy, considering risk factors and biomarkers of radiotherapy-related symptoms. Recently, she received a UCF SEED grant to examine the disparity of quality of life among Hispanic breast cancer survivors in Central Florida.
Dr. Lee says, “I have been actively promoting and advocating undergraduate research because I recognize the value of research experience in undergraduate education.” To give research opportunities to as many students as possible, Dr. Lee has been incorporating research into her classes, particularly HSC4501 Epidemiology of Chronic Diseases. As part of this research-intensive (RI)-designated course, students analyze publicly available epidemiologic data from the Florida Department of Health and write a report on their findings. “Students love the course,” says Dr. Lee, “and they often comment about how much they learned from writing the research report.” In fact, 90% of students who took her class reported that they were more confident in their ability to comprehend health data, an essential skill for their future lives and careers in health professions.
In addition to teaching innovative courses, Dr. Lee also provides one-on-one mentorship to students working on individual research projects. She helps her mentees set goals and tailors their research project to teach them relevant skills to fulfill those goals and help them in the future careers. For example, after one of her Honors Undergraduate Thesis (HUT) students completed her thesis, Dr. Lee hired her as a research assistant, which provided her with valuable experience on other research projects. She also facilitated an opportunity for this student to work on a research project that involved the development and delivery of cooking classes for children with autism. An aspiring occupational therapist, this student gained invaluable experience that helped to bolster her occupational therapy school applications. Similarly, Dr. Lee helped a student who wanted to become an epidemiologist for a government agency conduct research that involved data analysis of a national health database, a crucial skill for the student’s future career (and one that helped get her into graduate school). For a student applying to medical school, Dr. Lee developed a project that exposed her to clinical trials through conducting a systematic review and meta-analysis. Each of these mentees reached their goal of gaining acceptance into a graduate/professional school program of their choice.
Undergraduate researchers working with Dr. Lee attend weekly journal meetings where they analyze a scholarly article. “We discuss the research methods and validity of the results and conclusions,” Dr. Lee explains. “This format allows students to learn more about a particular topic and different approaches to conducting research. My goal is to challenge students with the most current research and to engage them in self-directed learning.”
Dr. Lee is so keen on providing valuable research experiences that even a pandemic could not slow her down! Using online collaboration tools, she was able to maintain a high-quality mentorship experience for her mentees.
One of the final components of the research experience is preparing to present their research to each other and to the wider community. Some of Dr. Lee’s students have participated in the Honors Undergraduate Thesis program where they conduct an independent research project, write a formal thesis, and present their research during the UCF Research Week Student Scholar Symposium. Some students have even presented their research at statewide meetings such as the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference and at national/international scientific conferences. During the last 4 years, Dr Lee’s undergraduate students have coauthored 7 peer-reviewed articles and a book chapter.
Dr. Lee attributes her success to careful preparation and consideration of the resources that students need to succeed. She provides clear guidelines for students, while giving them room to make mistakes and learn. She also supports her students financially by applying for Undergraduate Research Assistantships from her department and college and by helping them apply for research grants and the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research.
So far, Dr. Lee has mentored 42 UCF students individually, and many more through her ‘Research Intensive’ classes. These students are already publishing, going to graduate schools, and helping solve real-world issues. Their work will affect countless lives, from children with autism to cancer survivors. Dr. Lee’s example shows how more students can be empowered with crucial research skills to transform their education and change the world.
Tips for Mentors:
Lee says, “Mentors need to provide a safe and fun environment in which to conduct undergraduate research. They need well-prepared directions, proper guidance, and effective coaching, but you also need to give them room to try things on their own to learn from their mistakes.”
Tips for Undergraduate Researchers:
Dr. Lee says, “There are many tips for a successful research experience. Research takes time so it’s important to assess and possibly adjust your other commitments to ensure you have enough time to do a good job and to benefit from the experience. So, start early in your college life, such as during your freshmen or sophomore year. Setting a specific goal for yourself and informing your mentor of your goal and the amount of time you can contribute up front is also important. To get the most out of the experience, take the initiative to read peer-reviewed research articles related to the assigned project and work hard. Other important keys to success are to maintain regular communication with your mentor and other members of the research team, to always do your part, and to be honest.”
You can see the classes that Dr. Lee is currently teaching here: https://healthprofessions.ucf.edu/person/eunkyung-lee/#courses
If you are interested in taking a course designated “Research Intensive”, you can also search for “HIP- Research Intensive” in the “Special Course Group” field in the course catalog.