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Intellect

BYU's mentoring factory: Getting undergraduates into research

It's often said (and it's true) that giving undergraduate students research opportunities is a priority at BYU.

Alonzo Cook takes that charge very seriously. Cook, a chemical engineering professor, has 86 undergraduate students working in his lab. (Eighty-six!) And driving that student work is ongoing support from BYU's Office of Research and Creative Activities.

"I see the benefits of the ORCA program as threefold," Cook said. "It helps the research project progress with money for supplies, it gives undergraduate students a chance to write a grant application and it provides an opportunity to focus our research objectives."

The $1,500 mentoring grants provided by ORCA also help prepare students for meaningful research on the graduate level.

One of Cook's recent students, Jordan Eatough, is a perfect example of how ORCA can be a springboard for students. Eatough is heading to medical school next fall after working under Cook's tutelage to develop a process that could lead to creating human heart transplants from pig hearts.

"In the United States alone, more than 123,000 people are on the waiting list for a lifesaving organ transplant, with another name added every 12 minutes," Eatough said. "This overwhelming deficit has prompted advancements in organ engineering as an alternative source for the ever-increasing transplant demand."

Eatough's grant was just one of six ORCA grants awarded to students mentored by Cook last year. This year an additional 21 of his students are applying for funding.  

"At BYU, we are very fortunate to have so many opportunities available for undergraduate research," Eatough said. "We have highly trained and qualified professors who are often the best in their fields. It?s a huge blessing to be able to work alongside these great mentors."

Eatough is not the only undergraduate student to lead his own research in Cook's lab. There are four other projects lead by undergraduates with a total of 55 students on the teams. These projects include research on the pancreas, eye, blood vessels and diabetic peripheral nerve. An additional 31 undergrads work under graduate student advisors. These students are studying the kidney, heart and nerve system.

Cook is one of many professors at BYU who encourages students to submit ORCA grants. Jonathan Wisco, a physiology and developmental biology professor, has 48 undergraduate students in his lab this year, many of which will apply for ORCA grants.

Wisco encourages students to use their grant money to travel to international scientific meetings where they can present their research.

"My students who have presented at conferences are able to interact and receive feedback from peers at other institutions," Wisco said. "Students who go to conferences realize why science and the scientific community matters. They often come back to BYU with bigger and better ideas."

John Kauwe, a BYU biology and neuroscience professor who has about 25 undergraduate students in his lab at any time, understands that ORCA grants are important to move research forward.

"In my opinion, mentored research at BYU is most effective when the ORCA proposal drives the development and execution of that work," Kauwe said.

ORCA grants are awarded annually to students from all different disciplines. The deadline to apply for a grant this year is October 29, 2015. For more info, click here.

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