More than 60 undergraduate students presented a wide variety of research Saturday at the "4th Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium" hosted by the Undergraduate Students Research Association.
During his keynote address over lunch, Vice Chancellor of Research Taylor Eighmy said it was these research-minded students who could take the world "back to the future."
"The future can be changed because of the things that you're going to do," Eighmy said. "I need you to tinker now to change to future to make good things happen; the world needs you to do that. That's why you're here in college, that's why you're generating new knowledge and discovery."
He shared the tale of his own beginnings in research as a 19-year-old kid in Boston in the late 1970s, relating to the students and faculty gathered in the Howard H. Baker Center's Toyota Auditorium.
"I would elect to not go do normal things that students do; I would go hide in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard," Eighmy said. "I did an honors thesis in the biology department at Tufts, and that was a profound experience for me, to own the idea of generating new knowledge, new discovery ... it got me to where I am today."
For the students who, like Eighmy once did, labor in windowless labs or over detailed papers, the symposium offered a chance to present their findings and network with each other. In 15-minute presentations, the undergraduate researchers explained everything from the efficiency of photovoltaic cells to the design of a dark-matter detection chamber.
The research on photovoltaic cells – more commonly referred to as solar cells – was presented by Chris Barnes, a freshman in chemical engineering. He said he began the research as a senior in high school, putting together the symposium specific presentation in a couple of months.
"I think it's cool ... seeing things that I learn in research and then being taught like the theory and from the book and all the basic stuff behind it," Barnes said.
His enthusiasm for experiential learning was reflected in the symposium's eclectic mix of topics. Although Eighmy's keynote speech primarily focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics research, the humanities and professional trades were represented as well.
Allison Stark and Dabney Wilson, juniors in the College of Nursing, offered a different perspective on the importance of undergraduate research. They said that after first dismissing their research as "this huge project that wasn't going to mean anything," they now realize it's something that can make a difference, even if it's not the typical research of a lab.
"It's really changed my perspective in understanding the importance of research contributing to care in hospital and health care settings," Stark said. "It's really enhanced the importance to me."
Stark's research in pediatric oncology specifically focuses on the siblings of patients, looking at their quality of life. Qualitative research is a theme in nursing, as her classmate Wilson is researching the therapeutic effects of storytelling in children with cancer. Wilson hopes to work with the East Tennessee Children's Hospital next semester.
"I think we're both interested in ... middle-range theory, connecting theory and practice," she said. "We both want to learn more to better care ... Dr. Hudson, the head of the (Nursing) Honors Program, kind of took us under her wing and taught us everything we know about research."
For more information on undergraduate research, visit research.utk.edu/undergrad.