PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Susan Halsell

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Susan Halsell is Associate Professor of Biology at James Madison University.

What is your vision of a robust research-rich learning environment?

All students should have access to a research-rich learning environment.

Where would I be if it hadn’t been for the many research opportunities afforded me as a student? My passion for biology began as a high school freshman when I first learned about the Kreb Citric Acid Cycle. I “knew” then, I wanted to become a biology researcher/educator, but of course, I didn’t have a clue what that entailed. Luckily, during high school, through the efforts of my science teacher, I discovered an NSF summer research program for high school students. Later, in college, I spent two years in a research lab, discovering that research does entail first searching, then re-searching, re-searching and re-searching again.

Throughout each experience, I reconfirmed my passion for biology, but more importantly, the people who mentored me instilled in me a good understanding that the daily drudgery of the lab bench requires perseverance, that creative thought in science doesn’t always just “happen” but can be developed with proper training, and that all of the hard effort can be awarded by the elation of that “oh yes” moment. I firmly believe that all students be afforded this opportunity. I believe this is even more important now, and not just for students who “know” they want to enter a scientific research field. Given the rapid evolution of scientific techniques and the subsequent societal and ethical challenges that may arise, it is especially critical that our society include as many well-informed, knowledgeable citizens that have a deeper understanding of the nature of research and the scientific process. Perhaps these views and experiences are not unique, but the challenge is not our desire for research-rich experiences for students, but how we achieve them.

Based on my experience, an environment that encourages and rewards faculty to provide such experiences is critical. Most of my mentors did so at some risk to their productivity and status within their departments. Working with undergraduates is labor intensive with slower “pay-offs” in terms of scientific publication and grant production. Luckily, many of us do so for the other, more intangible rewards. However, unless the undergraduate research experience is truly valued by departments and upper administration, it creates either an undue burden on the faculty and/or discourages faculty from undertaking such responsibility. Valuing faculty in these pursuits must go beyond words, but also be implemented in terms of realistic expectations for productivity and grant dollar production for tenure and promotion and codifying successful undergraduate mentoring as one of the measures of faculty success.

The bottom line, though, is not what a faculty does, but rather what the students do. So one of the first needs is to provide the students with a research opportunity. Many departments do so, either through course credit and summer programs such as NSF REU at the home institution or by publicizing other institutions’ programs. This is only a start though, and a culture must be created that encourages all students to take advantage of the opportunities. This requires publicity and constant positive re-enforcement of undergraduate research experience. In our department, we first encourage students to pursue research during their freshman orientation. In classrooms, we continue to encourage them to seek such experiences. Through the Biology Honors Society, we meet with students to describe our research and encourage them to join us. Finally, each academic year culminates in our BioSymposium in which the students present either oral presentations or posters; we encourage attendance by all of our majors by canceling classes on that day so they are free to attend. From such exposure, younger students begin the process of entering a research lab.

I have provided only two examples for building a research-rich learning environment for students, and clearly, many other needs must be met. I do believe, however, that building a student, departmental and institutional environment that encourages and truly values such experiences is primary in beginning and maintaining such environments. With a positive culture in place, each member of that community will then feel fortified in creatively pursuing the challenges to improve and expand such programs.