Join MySLAS Social

Photos courtesy of The University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Gwen Stovall.

Cultivating Genius: The UT Freshman Research Initiative

The University of Texas at Austin is fundamentally changing the paradigm of undergraduate education in the sciences and serving as a model for other universities interested in modernizing their curricula and priorities for the 21st century.


More than 700 undergraduate students are hard at work in research laboratories at The University of Texas at Austin (UT), gaining hands-on experience and furthering high-level science in 26 different areas of chemistry, biochemistry, nanotechnology, molecular biology, physics, astronomy, computer sciences and mathematics.

"When I first got to college, I thought like every other bio major, I'm gonna be pre-med, that's what I want do, I want to be a doctor," says Josh Moore, a UT undergraduate student. "And once I got into a lab and was doing work, I realized how much I actually had a passion for the research side of science."

According to Sarah Simmons, director of the UT Freshman Research Initiative (UT FRI), which began in 2005 with just 45 students, "No other institution in the country is attempting to involve undergraduates in real research at this scale." And the effort is paying off. According to Simmons, UT FRI students have higher GPAs and get more scholarships; 70 percent of them continue to do research after they complete the program and they remain in scientific career paths.

SLAS also appreciates the importance of encouraging the next generation of scientific leaders, and works hard to invite them into the community via deeply discounted membership options; the new FIRST Team Grants program, SLAS Career Connections services, and annual conference-related opportunities like the Tony B. Academic Travel Awards, Student Poster Competition and Innovation AveNEW.

"Freshmen in college wade through a blizzard of calculus, physics and chemistry in lecture halls with hundreds of other students. And then many wash out," pens New York Times writer Christopher Drew. "Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors."

The Days of Cookbook Labs are Now Extinct

The UT FRI takes students out of lecture halls and quickly puts them face-to-face with real, original research. They work hand-in-hand with faculty mentors, and in the past five years, more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers have been published with FRI students as co-authors. "This is, in fact, a very revolutionary program and I mean that in every sense of the word," says SLAS member, JALA and JBS author, UT professor of biochemistry and FRI faculty leader Andrew Ellington, Ph.D. "We have streams in autonomous vehicles (robot cars!); we have streams in gaming; we have streams in genomic engineering. It is incredible all the things we do!"

The UT FRI infrastructure revolves around the concept of Research Streams, fully functional research laboratories in which students do cutting edge research supplemented by weekly lectures that relate directly to the work being done in the labs. The program is modular, exportable and scalable. "[The students] get to do things that nobody else has done," says Simmons, "and that's what really helps them decide 'is this something that I love, is this something that I want to do or is this something that I can respect for the rest of my life?' Freshmen don't know what they can't do."

In the words of Robert Lynch, a UT FRI student, "It's awesome to be 18 and just a freshman at The University and involved in such a cool project as this where I get to mess with robots and teach them how to do things."

A Student-Centered Experience

There are no prerequisites for participation in the UT FRI. Students who typically would not have opted for a research experience or who are particularly at risk for not completing a degree in STEM are recruited into the program as soon as they are admitted to UT, and are allotted close to half of the spots. The remaining spots are open to students who fill out a brief application during summer orientation and are randomly selected. Although the UT FRI has expanded each year, the waitlist remains at over 100 students each year.

UT FRI students spend their first fall semester in Research Methods, a class that explains basics (safety, statistics, etc.) along with the realities of life in a scientific research laboratory. Students learn how research actually works at universities and in industry; the typical job titles, roles and responsibilities of those engaged in research; the business of running a laboratory; and what's required for research teams to coalesce and function successfully.

During this first semester class students also evaluate their personal interests and explore how they can be furthered within the different Research Streams. They then rank their interest in the streams they find most appealing. Students are distributed among streams based on preference and availability and each student begins the second UT FRI semester in spring, working as one of 30 to 40 students in one Research Stream laboratory class. They learn fundamentals such as pipetting, preparation of chemical solutions and other essential milestones by doing hands-on work that contributes to larger, real-life research initiatives.

Some Research Streams represent collaborations with commercial biotech and pharmaceutical companies, but most Research Stream laboratories further the work being done by distinguished UT scientists, such as Ellington, who directly engages with the students and has a stake in their progress. Beyond the basics, the experience teaches students the reality of scientific research. Says Ellington, "Science is not this thing where you just come in on a given morning and do some work and get the Nobel Prize. It is this thing where mostly there is failure upon failure upon failure, and students need to learn that. That experience of failing without it costing them their grade, without it costing them anything other than the realization that this is real science."

Within the context of the Research Streams each student is encouraged to identify a personal path, which they develop throughout an optional summer class and a second fall semester class. After completing three FRI regular semester classes, students are well prepared to continue working and studying in faculty, government and industry laboratories. Some become peer mentors and continue to work in their UT FRI Research Stream laboratories as teaching assistants; others become UT FRI Ambassadors who keep high school teachers and students informed of the advantages offered by the UT FRI.

DIY Diagnostics: Innovation at the Intersection of Science and Technology

"Students really hit the ground running," says Timothy E. Riedel, Ph.D., the UT FRI research educator for the new DIY Diagnostics Research Stream that will debut in spring 2014. "They get to be scientists right away, and that's my goal – to get them into their own independent projects as quickly as possible."

Each Research Stream is represented by one dedicated research educator who manages the lab work and guides the development of the individual students who enter their stream. The DIY Diagnostics Research Stream is led by Riedel with guidance from a team of UT FRI faculty leaders that includes Ellington. This new stream treads across territory that's very familiar to SLAS members – innovation at the intersection of science and technology.

Specifically, Riedel expects his students to harness the bottom-up, do-it-yourself (DIY) revolution and disrupt the health care paradigm with personalized and portable diagnostics; inexpensive and easy-to-use tests that save time, money and democratize health care. Concurrent with developing testing tools, students will be expected to build virtual interfaces, digitize results and tap into the power of medical and social data sets. "The results of the DIY Stream may be actual products; applied science in its truest sense with possible opportunities for real commercial outcomes," says Riedel.

"There will be an emphasis on student independence and individuality," Riedel adds. "They will be encouraged and expected to pursue their own creations, and their inherent understanding of technology will fuel their success."

A real-life role model for the DIY Diagnostics stream is Ellington's recent breakthrough in tuberculosis (TB) testing; a small, inexpensive and disposable strip of paper embedded with synthetic DNA that can immediately determine the presence of TB bacteria in saliva.

According to Riedel, the sky's the limit. "Students are capable of anything. They already have tons of ideas without preconceived barriers. They've always lived in a world filled with data. They think in those terms and will make amazing things happen."

Possible examples might include creating novel smartphone apps or digitizing existing over-the-counter diagnostics to improve the user experience or repurpose the output. "Imagine this," says Riedel, "You're at a party and you're concerned that a friend may be too drunk to drive, so you use a diagnostic you developed, maybe it's an app on his iPhone to make a video of his eyeball in bright light, or maybe it measures alcohol in saliva, and you take a picture with your phone camera. The point is it is fast and easy to understand and if the verdict is that he should keep his keys in his pocket, then his smartphone automatically sends text messages to a predetermined list of friends, asking for a ride home."

"Think," says Riedel, "how much time and suffering parents could eliminate if they had a simple and reliable way to diagnose ear infections in their babies. Think about the serious consequences that could be avoided if a fast and easy test for Lyme Disease could be deployed every time a person has a tick; or if you could find out whether or not your sushi is good to go before you wrap your chopsticks around it."

Riedel feels passionate about how the UT FRI can inspire the next generation of scientists by "dispelling myths and showing them how real scientific research is iterative, collaborative, communicative and diverse; how it can be practical and personal; and how there are many different career paths."

As a bonus, the UT FRI creates a meaningful sense of community for like-minded students. On a campus of more than 50,000 students, UT FRI students tend to form lasting friendships and working relationships with each other and with faculty, including some of the world's top scientists.

Cultivating Genius

UT Professor of Astronomy and FRI faculty leader Don Winget, Ph.D., sums things up nicely: "When you get cynical and you look at the newspaper and you think 'oh there's no hope for our country or our planet,'... you look at these kids and it's different. The FRI program gives these students a chance to succeed at a level that affects not only The University of Texas and the state of Texas, but affects our country and the world. We're cultivating genius and that's essential for our survival on this planet."

For academic leaders interested in learning more about FRI, an FRI Annual Conference at The University of Texas at Austin presents the essential elements of the program, including student and faculty recruitment, institutional buy-in, curriculum development, assessment, research project examples and administrative infrastructure. FRI faculty and student presentations provide detailed information about how FRI works, and conference participants have opportunities to tour FRI facilities; examine their own institutional structure, goals and barriers; and work with FRI faculty and staff to explore how the FRI model could assist in the development or refinement of their own educational models. For more information, visit the website.

November 11, 2013