Research Rookies No Longer
Program enhances undergraduate research opportunities and faculty-student relationships
By Mary Hardbarger
When Jose Bermudez moved to the United States from Colombia in 2015, he immediately noticed a discrepancy in an important issue that repeatedly appears throughout mainstream news headlines: mental illness.
“In my country, people don’t talk about mental illness,” said Bermudez, a junior marketing major. “When I came here [the U.S.], everyone was talking about it, but it was still perceived as taboo. I didn’t understand why mental illness was stigmatized, and I wanted to find answers.”
Through a new Radford University research program, Bermudez had the unique opportunity, at the undergraduate level, to delve deeper into this relevant and real-world topic that impacts millions of people worldwide.
Bermudez was among 13 other highly-motivated and high-achieving Radford University freshman and sophomore students selected to participate in the new Highlander Research Rookies Program for undergraduate students. Launched in Fall 2018, Research Rookies paired each selected student with a faculty mentor to conduct a yearlong research project based on their research interests.
For Bermudez, that interest was mental illness. And, with the help of Associate Professor of Communication West Bowers, Ph.D., he narrowed the focus of his research to college websites and how effectively, or not, they promote mental health services to their campus communities.
“It was a great experience,” Bermudez said, reflecting this summer on the completion of the first year of Research Rookies. “This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to do anything like this. What we accomplished in one year was amazing.”
Because of the Research Rookies Program, Bowers and Bermudez, who had never met before, were able to connect at a level that is rare for professors and undergraduate students at other universities. At Radford University, though, that special student-faculty connection shines.
“Research Rookies is an example of the close student-faculty collaborative work that makes a Radford University education so valuable,” said Associate Provost for Academic Programs Jeanne Mekolichick, Ph.D., who helped establish the program. “Connecting our first- and second-year students so deeply and so early with faculty and their disciplines creates meaningful academic connections that are the root of all student success.”
President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., first introduced the bold initiative during his inaugural State of the University Address in October 2017. He envisioned the program as an avenue for “maximizing opportunities for research-based engagement and learning.”
President Hemphill announced that funding of up to $4,000 would be provided to each Highlander Research Rookie for the full year based on the number of hours devoted to research-based work in order to assist with educational expenses and other related costs. Additionally, faculty mentors participating in the program would receive $2,000 for supplies and other materials needed for student research performed as part of the program.
In order to bring President Hemphill’s vision to life, the Highlander Research Rookies Program Working Group was established. The group, comprised of University administrators and faculty, worked diligently and rapidly in Spring 2018 to implement the program.
Former Vice President for Enrollment Management Kitty McCarthy selected and recruited a pool of students from diverse backgrounds to apply. The program was open to all majors, which was a very intentional decision, explained Joe Wirgau, Ph.D., director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship (OURS) and director of the Highlander Research Rookies Program.
“Not all universities open up these type of research opportunities to all departments and majors,” Wirgau explained. “They’re often targeted toward a specific major. We wanted all students, no matter their backgrounds, to have the opportunity to experience undergraduate research.”
Mekolichick and Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kenna Colley, Ed.D., recruited faculty mentors, also representative of different colleges and departments.
By Summer 2018, the talented students and faculty were selected, paired and ready to hit the ground running as the first cohort of Highlander Research Rookies. What followed was a dynamic and fast-paced academic year of success, failure, challenge, reward and undeniable academic, cultural and emotional growth.
‘It was a lot of work, but it was worth it’
Bermudez voiced early on that he wanted to research student mental health, he just did not know where to start or what path to go down, Bowers said.
“That’s often how the research process begins,” Bowers continued. “You start with really broad ideas and expectations, but what research really is, is small steps, and those small steps lead to something really big.”
Bowers’ research background included content analysis of websites, so the pair decided to mesh their interests and study universities’ student health websites to gauge their effectiveness in reaching their student audience. Bermudez and Bowers spent the fall semester gathering data from about 20 websites, categorizing them based on school size. Winter break included lots of coding, the most frustrating part, Bermudez said, and the spring semester was spent analyzing the data collected.
“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” Bermudez said.
Throughout the fall and spring semesters, Bowers saw a noticeable transformation in his student-researcher. His confidence grew. His writing skills improved. He craved critique, accepted challenges and celebrated achievements.
“Watching Jose grow throughout the research process was exciting to see,” said Bowers. “His skills were clicking, and he was so energetic — more energetic than I thought someone might be at the undergraduate level. I was very impressed with his enthusiasm and his willingness to see the project through from start to finish.”
At the end of the spring semester, Bermudez presented his research at the Virginia Association of Communication Arts and Sciences (VACAS) Conference, held on Radford University’s campus in early 2019.
Nalani Story, a junior computer science major, is passionate about undergraduate research. That is one of the main reasons she enrolled at Radford University, she said.
“I knew I wouldn’t get this opportunity at other schools,” Story said. “The Research Rookies Program offered me that opportunity in a structured environment. Sitting down to work on my research was the highlight of my week.”
Story was paired with Assistant Professor of Information Technology Caleb Bradberry, Ph.D., to conduct research on student retention analysis, specifically looking at what characteristics make a student majoring in computer science at Radford University likely to succeed and graduate. Using the University’s data system, they tracked a group of computer science students from their freshman to senior year, focusing on their classes and professors.
“It was awesome to be able to stop by Dr. Bradberry’s office and know that for an hour, we were able to talk about the research,” Story said. “Dr. Bradberry, in general, was understanding, and we talked about things beyond the research. He felt more like a mentor than just a
When Samantha Doncaster, a junior interdisciplinary studies major, enrolled at Radford University, she came with a lengthy bucket list. Because of Research Rookies, she is already checked off three accomplishments that were high on the ambitious list.
“I wanted to participate in undergraduate research, present my research and meet the Board of Visitors,” Doncaster explained.
Check. Check. Check.
“I did all of that in one year,” she said. “Wow.”
Doncaster was paired with Professor of Criminal Justice Nicole Hendrix, Ph.D., to research perceived risk and its connection to firearm possession, an ongoing project of Hendrix.
“This project provided Sam a window of opportunity to think a little more critically about a topic that many people find challenging,” Hendrix said. “We spent this last year immersing her in literature and how data is gathered and measured. We were able to really open her up in ways that a traditional student might not get in a classroom experience. It was never linear and a little messy at times, but overall, she was able to obtain a broader understanding and see that we have a lot of tools and research to answer her questions.”
In the spring, Doncaster had the exciting opportunity to present her research to the Board of Visitors during a special research poster presentation. She took the endeavor one step further and was the only student to present her findings on a large digital board, versus a traditional poster board.
The mentorship she gained and
the friendship she established with Hendrix was invaluable, Doncaster said.
“Dr. Hendrix is a phenomenal woman, and I am honored to have worked beside her on this project,” Doncaster said. “She has taught me so much about life itself. It’s only added to my love of learning.”
The feeling is “absolutely mutual,” Hendrix said.
“I am honored to help Sam continue on her exciting journey at Radford University,” Hendrix said. “Research Rookies highlighted the close relationships that faculty have with students on our campus. It reflects our strong commitment to undergraduate education, particularly the role that research has in providing students with skills they can take into any field.”
Looking toward the future of the Highlander Research Rookies Program, Wirgau said he is both excited and challenged to build upon the experience, tweak shortcomings and prepare the next cohort of researchers to be just as successful as the first.
“These researchers, no longer rookies, along with their potential, growth and accomplishments from this past year, represent the best of higher education,” Wirgau said. “They exemplify why so many of us are passionate about Radford University and becoming educators.”