BY TUMA HAJI
Some say education in more scientifically-oriented disciplines goes hand-in-hand with research. By the end of their undergraduate experiences, students in biology, environmental science, chemistry, physics and other majors may find themselves well acquainted with the process of working with professors and faculty in defining the unknown.
Drake University, much like universities across the nation and abroad, provides its students with research opportunities both on campus, in the community and beyond.
The experiences are open to all students who apply. The Department of Environmental Sciences and Sustainability (ESS) is one of many departments at Drake University that offers unique research experiences to its students.
The department engages in various types of research, mainly revolving around field work. In addition to developing complex environmental, economic and human systems through the use of computer modeling, research students are also studying animal behavior in places like Rwanda, Des Moines Blank Park Zoo and Ape Cognition and Conservation Initiative facilities.
Students have also investigated the transformation of pollution and metabolism in rivers, including the Raccoon, and researched Uganda’s water contamination. The department also engages in overseeing projects such as the role that managed grazing plays on species in the Chichaqua Bottoms Greenbelt, as well as a long-term Indiana forest study.
David Courard-Hauri, professor of environmental science and sustainability, is one of the many professors in the department who lead the research. He spent the last few years creating newer models of ecological constructs.
“We created a new and, we believe, more accurate models of carbon sequestration in multi-species tropical forests and a survey-based reanalysis of economic principles used in long-term environmental decision making,” Courard-Hauri said. “The latter was particularly focused on benefit-cost analysis when changes from, for example, climate disruption, increase in intensity in the future, and have ‘non-marginal’ impacts, for example destroying entire ecosystems, island nations, or coastal economies—something current methods of economic analysis are not set up to do.”
Courard-Hauri’s projects, like some professors’, involved individual students focused on solving a particular problem.
Just as the ESS Department offers many types of research, it also offers various ways for students to become involved with research.
One determining factor of success in research lies in the student’s desire to commit. Some research projects span a whole semester or offer grant-based summer experience and longitudinal research that lasts multiple years.
While some research is done individually in collaborating with a professor, students also have the opportunity to work together in labs with multiple students.
Upperclassmen often mentor first-years, usually through the guidance of a professor. A majority of long-term student researchers, and some short-term students, are financially compensated for their contribution. Others opt to research for credit or engage in the experiences as something they do in their free time.
There are many opportunities to engage in summer research at other universities, which can be discovered through the Research Experience for Undergraduates Program, as well as research while studying abroad. For those interested in research through Drake, Courard-Hauri said students should seek out professors who have expertise or research in the field in which the student is interested in.
“You’ll be most successful if you start early, as that will give you time to get acquainted with a project and develop specific skills that are useful in a particular type of work,” he said.
Procrastination, however, may have its perks.
“That’s not to say that older students have ‘missed the boat’—plenty of students can and do have successful experiences that they start as juniors and seniors,” Courard-Hauri said. “Advanced students have a deeper academic background and so can get to the meat of a problem more quickly. But it is true that a student who does a semester-long research project as a senior so that they can put research on their resume will have a very different experience from one who joined a lab as a first or second-year student and progressed through from groundwork to student leader.”
For students who are passionate about protecting and maintaining a healthy environment but do not want to engage in research, Drake Environmental Action League (DEAL) is always eager to welcome new environmentalists.
Co-President Gabriella LeFevre encourages students to take part in the initiative. The environmental advocacy group’s central goal is to educate students, faculty, staff and members of the community about environmental issues. Recycling and fossil fuels are pressing issues for the group.
“The executive board’s greatest challenge this year is figuring out the best way to channel all of this passion in a way that catalyzes lasting change,” LeFevre said. “It’s a welcome challenge because it demonstrates the determination of the student body and many of the faculty and staff to make Drake more ethical, more ecologically aware of its impact on the natural world.”