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Originally published May 20, 2011 at 8:26 PM | Page modified May 20, 2011 at 8:26 PM

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UW undergrads show their research shouldn't be overlooked

During the University of Washington's Undergraduate Symposium Friday, nearly a thousand UW undergraduate students shared the kind of cutting-edge research and novel thinking they've done during their college years.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

quotes How many of the undergraduate science students mentioned come out of Seattle Public... Read more
quotes I have attended the UW Undergraduate Symposiums for many years. I can't emphasize more... Read more
quotes I did many hours of undergrad research (chem 499) at Bagley Hall...great stuff. I... Read more

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Pranoti Hiremath is helping design an expandable, prosthetic titanium rib. Christopher Mount experimented with polymers that can enhance the delivery of dyes to help detect tumors. Abdelraziq Adam is drafting a constitution for Darfur.

About 900 University of Washington undergraduate students came together Friday for the school's Undergraduate Symposium, sharing the kind of cutting-edge research and novel thinking they've done during their college years.

"It's mind-boggling; it's exciting; it's impressive," said Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of undergraduate academic affairs. "We attract strong students to the university in part because that's what we do — we're about discovering."

By the school's count, the symposium has become one of the largest of its kind in the country.

Mary Gates Hall was abuzz all afternoon as students greeted their professors, family and friends, then launched into descriptions of their work: for example, how sleep disruption impacts hippocampal memory performance, or how certain genetic errors can lurk behind some cases of schizophrenia.

The research work also encompassed the arts, such as how women break dancers differ in dance style from men, and international politics, such as that writing of a new constitution for Darfur.

Research is a staple of graduate school, but professors say undergraduates, who are usually in their late teens or early 20s, bring a different perspective to the work.

"They bring a lot of energy to the lab," said Kevin King, assistant professor of child clinical psychology in the Department as Psychology.

King said undergraduates approach research in ways that are both naive and refreshing, asking basic questions and helping researchers break entrenched patterns of thinking. They also can serve as a sounding board as researchers strive to explain their work in very accessible, nontechnical ways.

Students often find that participating in research "really enriches their whole undergraduate experience," said Janice DeCosmo, associate dean of undergraduate academic affairs. Bringing it all together during the symposium helps inspire other students and "break down the mystique of research," she said.

Some undergraduate projects have the potential to truly change lives.

Hiremath worked with doctors at Seattle Children's Research Institute to begin designing a new device that could help end frequent rounds of surgery for children born with deformations of the thorax.

In her research at the UW, she has worked with orthopedic surgeons, used three-dimensional printers, and met with patients. "I get to meet the kids, which is really great," said the 21-year-old bioengineering major, who will be at Harvard Medical School this fall.

Junior Molly Gasperini researched the genomes of people with schizophrenia. It's work that could give scientists insights into the causes of the mental illness, and perhaps one day lead to medications that work better, with fewer side effects, she said.

Gasperini, 20, hopes to eventually get her doctorate in mental-health genetics. She said the research taught her basic lab skills, and helped her decide whether this is what she wants to do with her life. The answer is yes: "My goal is to help out in any way," she said.

Doing research early in their undergraduate years can help students aiming for grad school, as well as those who plan to go right into careers after they graduate, DeCosmo said. The school has seen the number of undergraduates doing research increase from 3,936 in the 2008-09 school year to more than 6,000 last year, although the jump may be partly attributed to more complete counting of the number of students involved.

Not only do undergrads make important contributions to research, they sometimes get the glory of presenting it to the world. King has had several of his students' work published in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

"What we love about the symposium is that students get to be the teachers," DeCosmo said. "It's really wonderful to see that."

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com

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