Undergraduate Research: Much More Than A Lab

by Nicole

I'm taking this post to deviate a bit from my usual theme of dorm life. Dorm life provides a good base for exploration for students on campus; having their living quarters so close to their academics allows for residents to branch easily in campus activities while minimizing the horrors of transportation costs (or the frigid weather, in most cases). These activities include athletics, clubs and student organizations, and (the one I am going to develop here today), undergraduate research.

UAF prides itself on a strong hands-on approach to learning both in and out of the classroom. The tough environment and consistent challenges mean that students often have to get creative in order to succeed; a good example of this is a sight we often highlight on our campus tours: the steel drivers displayed in the Duckering building, home to the College of Engineering and Mines. These drivers represent the struggle to reconcile the will of man and the tenacity of the Alaskan landscape, especially the tundra. In attempt to drill into permafrost, these once gargantuan towers of steel became malleable as paper cups. The drivers crushed into themselves, unable to pierce the permafrost surface. It would have appeared that the tundra had won; far from the libraries and laboratories that had once served as resources, these researchers had to find a solution on their own. Eventually they did, by changing their methods to allow the tips of the drivers to freeze into the permafrost before proceeding. This mindset characterizes what UAF hopes to inspire in its students: the idea that the unconventional and the creative solutions can often be what jettisons progress. Innovation is both a tradition and a necessity to this campus.

This is the section where I hoped to convey all the different projects being developed on campus, but even as I write this I know, were I to list every single one, the compiled list would be an absolute tome. Projects are in constant development, being mulled, being planned, or are currently in progress. The extensive facilities and limitless projects allow for innumerable research topics to be explored. These locations include:

  • the agricultural farm just off campus, testing various crops and methods for Alaskan conditions
  • the viral laboratory examining pathogens
  • the bottom floor of the campus museum—this floor is lined with laboratories continually in action, including archeology, ornithology, entomology, and paleontology (just to name a few)
  • Reichardt chemistry, geology, and physics laboratories
  • pathology, wildlife, botany, and fisheries labs in O'Neill and Arctic Health Research Center
  • and more!

I've dipped my own toe into these waters, and now have the quirkiest, dirtiest, and helpful memories that I've gathered from my college career. I've spliced hundreds upon hundreds of seedlings to incur their growth; I've mixed chemicals like ingredients in a recipe; I've measured and identified fish samples taken straight from the mouths of puffins (for the record—they don't smell any better fourteen years later); I've scrubbed an ancient skull (from a dinosaur whose name I still can't seem to pronounce) with a toothbrush until it gleamed. Most of the time I've stumbled into these opportunities, and they've given me valuable experience that have prepared me for my career after graduation.
A frilled-dinosaur nose bone, scrubbed clean with a toothbrush and Vinac-ed until it shines!

This is what a squid looks like after being frozen for 14 years. He's still lookin' beautiful!

 I would recommend anyone with the drive or purely the curiosity to investigate this opportunity to themselves. There's a niche for anyone willing to try and eager to learn, no matter the level of experience or class ranking. 

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