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Cultivating Curiosity

Undergraduates explore their passion for discovery through research.

Michigan State University is committed to providing undergraduate students with opportunities to explore their passions and develop their curiosities through research.

With access to vast campus resources, there’s almost no limit to the type of research in which students can get involved. Bolstered by faculty dedicated to their development, students are tackling some of the toughest questions in fields from agriculture to particle science and transforming their interests into noteworthy scholarly activity.

“There are so many academic, cognitive and professional benefits that a student can gain by participating in undergraduate research,” says Korine Wawrzynski, MSU’s director of undergraduate research. “Students develop better communication skills through writing and presenting their work and improve their problem-solving abilities by working on questions that don’t always have a right or wrong answer.”

In April, more than 600 undergraduate students from 13 colleges participated in the University Undergraduate Research and Arts Forum (UURAF) at the MSU Union. This annual event is an opportunity for students to present their research to the university community and learn more about the work of their peers.

The Mid-Michigan Symposium for Undergraduate Research Experiences, which was held at the Breslin Student Events Center in the summer, drew nearly 300 students—157 MSU students and 137 visiting students working with MSU faculty—to share their research with the public. The visiting students represented 87 institutions, including seven historically black colleges and universities.

While each student researcher’s story is unique, all share the benefits of participation in undergraduate research. Thanks to their research experience, the following five students and thousands more like them are better prepared to do what Spartans all around the world do best: seek solutions that make life better.

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Cooper Franks: Seeking Social Change

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When Austin Jackson, assistant professor in the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH), asked one of his classes to write a paper about the inequalities of educational opportunity, it was more than a routine assignment for Cooper Franks.

A senior from Romeo, Michigan, who attended high school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Franks was curious about the effect of social injustice stemming from race, class and gender. A class paper focusing on the public education system was right up his alley.

When Franks, who is pursuing a dual major in RCAH and the College of Education with a minor in history, exceeded the paper’s assigned length by 25 pages, Jackson asked him if he wanted to get involved in research.

Since then, Franks has had the opportunity to conduct research on the condition of the Detroit Public Schools system, as well as on the educational system in postapartheid South Africa and Afrocentric education in general. Passionate about his research, Franks says he no longer works just for a grade but also to influence people who encounter his contributions to the field.

An undergraduate research ambassador at MSU, Franks says his research has not only helped him become a better scholar and educator but also has prepared him to be an agent for social change in whatever career path he chooses.

Franks credits Jackson with helping him grow personally and professionally and now considers him not just a professor but a colleague, research partner and friend.

After graduation, Franks hopes to teach at an international baccalaureate school and eventually pursue a doctorate in educational policy or administration.

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Larissa Fedoroff: Creating Effective Workspaces

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Larissa Fedoroff didn’t know what she had signed up for when she agreed to be Young-Sook Lee’s research assistant. She only knew it was related to her major and would involve conducting literature reviews.

Fedoroff, a recent MSU graduate from Utica, Michigan, majored in interior design with specializations in health promotion and bioethics, humanities and society.

After meeting with Lee, assistant professor in the School of Planning, Design and Construction, Fedoroff understood the significance of what she was getting involved in: creating effective workspaces. Her project would revolve around innovative entrepreneurs and how the design of their workspace influences their work.

Fedoroff committed herself to the project and became a vital part of Lee’s team. During the course of her work, she realized that she could explore the interior design portion of the research on a level that was close to home.

Fedoroff started focusing on the attributes of MSU as a workplace and how its work environment compares to others around Michigan. She started looking specifically at “disengage spaces” where employees can take a break from their desks, spend time with coworkers and relax.

A former president of the MSU Interior Design Student Organization, Fedoroff presented a project at the 2014 UURAF. Titled “Cultivating Creativity and Innovation in MSU Employees: Engaging through Disengage Spaces,” her presentation suggested designs for future renovations to improve MSU spaces.

By conducting this research, Fedoroff says she gained a greater appreciation for the workplace and how the designed environment can affect employee productivity, noting the importance of creating an environment where employees will want to go to work and participate in productive activities.

Fedoroff’s experience paid dividends. She now applies concepts she learned as an undergraduate researcher in her role as an interior designer at a Greater Detroit-area firm, where her design work focuses on high-end hotels.

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Irina Pushel: Integrating Disciplines

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Irina Pushel didn’t end up an undergraduate researcher by chance. It’s the reason she came to MSU. Originally from Naperville, Illinois, Pushel wanted to attend a university where she could get involved in research at the beginning of her freshman year.

Pushel was accepted into MSU’s Professorial Assistantship Program, and when asked what kind of research she wanted to do, Pushel knew the exact answer.

In fact, she looked up the research interests of faculty members in MSU’s biochemistry and molecular biology department and asked David Arnosti to be her research mentor. Arnosti, professor and director of the Gene Expression in Development and Disease Initiative, allowed Pushel to start her freshman year as a research assistant in his lab.

Pushel is now in her senior year majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology with minors in math, computer science and French. An MSU Alumni Distinguished Scholarship recipient, she also is a Dean’s Research Scholar and a member of the Honors College.

Pushel has worked on several projects as an undergraduate researcher at MSU. While in Arnosti’s lab, she examined how genes are regulated through computational biology. She integrates knowledge from her minors in math and computer science with her major to use computational models to better understand biology.

In 2013, Pushel conducted research in molecular biology in Dusseldorf, Germany, with funding from the German Academic Exchange Service’s Research Internships in Science and Engineering program and presented her research at UURAF and at the Michigan Society of Toxicology meeting, winning first-place awards in her category for both presentations. This year, she returned to the research and arts forum to present additional work she had conducted.

In June she was one of two students—and the only undergraduate—to present her research, which focused on how gene regulation in fruit flies could lead to personalized oncology in humans, to President Lou Anna K. Simon, the MSU Board of Trustees and members of the community.

Upon graduation, Pushel plans to pursue a doctorate in molecular biology.

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Elizabeth Brajevich: Giving Voice to Michigan Communities

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During her first semester at MSU, Elizabeth Brajevich, now a junior in the Residential Initiative on the Study of the Environment program, read an article about marginalized communities affected by the removal of a dam in their region.

The Los Angeles native, who is pursuing a degree in environmental economics and policy and is a member of the Honors College, soon learned that 90 percent of Michigan’s dams either need to be repaired or removed in the next 20 years, which will cause many local governments and communities to face the consequences of dam removal in their regions in the future.

Brajevich decided to delve deeper into the issue of how Michigan dams create a positive impact on the numerous local communities that would be affected. She began her research project with the help of Mark Axelrod, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and James Madison College.

With funding from the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Brajevich conducted research in four Michigan counties regarding how community opinions could be better incorporated into future dam removal decisions. She analyzed whether dam ownership affected the political process of its removal by interviewing both stakeholders and decision makers in each community.

Brajevich’s research has resulted in an increased understanding of how citizens can be unaware of their ability to influence dam removal decisions. Through her work, she has opened doors to the possibility of improving community-government communications.

This past summer, she worked as a fellow for Coca-Cola’s environmental assessment team, working remotely from Los Angeles as a volunteer with the Angeles National Forest campfire program.

At this year’s UURAF, Brajevich was awarded the Schoenl Grant for Dire Needs Overseas and is using the funds to set up two community swine farming programs in rural Cambodia.

Brajevich says her experience has further affirmed her commitment to a career in environmental education through which she hopes to empower citizens to add their voices to natural resource management issues.

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Anzar Abbas: Interpreting History

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After conducting clinical research during the first two years of his undergraduate career, Anzar Abbas, a recent graduate from Karachi, Pakistan, who studied neuroscience in the Lyman Briggs College and is now pursuing graduate studies at Emory University, developed a curiosity about the history of science. In particular, he wanted to learn more about the origin of the scientific method used in labs today, which dates back at least to the European Renaissance.

Abbas expressed his curiosity to John Waller, associate professor of history, who encouraged him to familiarize himself more fully with the topic. A few months later, Abbas knew he wanted to delve deeper into how scientific thinking had been passed down over 1,500 years from the Greeks to the Renaissance scholars.

He began working with Waller to better understand the critical role certain philosophers played in kindling the Renaissance. Eventually Abbas expanded his research to study Arab contributions that had added to that body of knowledge—a lot of which occurred in the Spanish-Arab Empire of Al-Andalus.

Subsequently, Abbas received funding to conduct research at the University of Oxford, where he had access to historical manuscripts from the region. He also had the opportunity to visit areas in Spain he was studying to meet with scholars living and working in the region.

A 2014 UURAF participant, Abbas credits the resources available to him at MSU with helping him develop his curiosities into a research project that has significantly contributed to his growth as a student. His study of the history of science not only increased his understanding of the scientific past, he says, but also fostered his interest in the scientific present, convincing him to pursue a doctorate in neuroscience.