Dozens of undergraduates will head to the State Capitol on Wednesday, March 4 hoping to show state lawmakers concrete evidence of why research is important and worthy of their support.
“I want to show legislators what undergraduate research funding supports,” says Stephen Sullivan, one of 53 WVU students participating in Undergraduate Research Day at the Capitol.
Sullivan’s research into the natural gas futures market “analyzed short-term price variability and shows how volatile the natural gas market is,” he said. “This is significant, because businesses use futures contracts prices to make investment and operations decisions.” He notes that the way the natural gas industry is regulated has a direct effect on West Virginia’s economic competitiveness.
Undergraduate Research Day is a day of research, networking and discoveries and gives college students from across the state the opportunity to present their research in poster format and present their findings to state legislators.
The event will take place from 9 a.m. until noon in the Capitol’s upper and lower rotundas. After a poster session, students and their faculty mentors will gather for a luncheon with WVU President Gordon Gee as the keynote speaker.
WVU and Marshall University collaborate to organize the event. Funding for the program comes, in part, from a grant from the Higher Education Policy Commission. Additional funding for the lunch provided comes from WVU’s Office of Graduate Admissions and Recruitment.
“Because we received 158 total submissions for only 80 spots, we chose to open the lower rotunda,” she said. “This gave us the ability to accept up to 30 more submissions.”
Along with Johnson, Undergraduate Research Day receives programming support from Kenneth Blemings, the interim dean of the Honors College, and Michelle Richards-Babb, associate professor of chemistry and a long-time coordinator of WVU’s STEM Student Undergraduate Research Experience programs.
The program is competitive, with statewide selection. A selection committee comprising experts from across the state reviews all submissions and selects those who will present. Among the criteria for selection, the committee looks for a wide representation of research from across schools and fields.
Historically, the event was limited to the upper rotunda, and Johnson is unsure whether the research committee will accept as many submissions next year. “It’s really an experiment,” she said. “The upper rotunda certainly sees more traffic, as legislators walk between chambers.” She hopes that people will be encouraged to go to the lower rotunda to see all the research presented.
The state legislators and student researchers work together to advance West Virginia. The research the students conduct can have a positive effect on policy and can help inform policymakers. When legislators see how useful academic research is in practice, they are more likely to support future research efforts.
“This is a fun event for our students and for the members of the state legislature,” said Dr. Charles Somerville, dean of Marshall University’s College of Science and a member of the event’s organizing committee. “Students work on these original research projects for as long as four years and this event provides them an opportunity to share their work with the senators and delegates.”
“Undergraduate Research Day helps to highlight research that might be of use to West Virginia legislators,” Johnson says.
One example is research that Amanda Marple and Dillon Muhly-Alexander are presenting. Their project, titled “WV Foodlink,” presents the work of WV Foodlink, a Food Justice Laboratory program.
Marple says WV Foodlink has real importance for the families of West Virginia. “We are working for the citizens of West Virginia in order to bring to light the situation of hunger and food insecurity,” she says. “We are also creating a website tool so West Virginia residents can find emergency food agencies.”
Muhly-Alexander agrees. A Judith A. Herndon Fellow this year at the West Virginia Legislature, he is interested to see how research supports policy.
“In West Virginia, there are high rates of poverty for children, for families,” he says. “It’s extremely important to address the problem of hunger among West Virginians. We hope our research creates a sense of urgency around the issue.”
Richards-Babb notes that research is important for students, too.
“When students participate in research, it helps to retain them in their majors,” she says. “It allows them to experience the more creative side of their discipline.” Students who conduct research as undergraduates are also more likely to seek advanced degrees, which results in a more educated workforce.
Sullivan is an example of that. He looks forward to presenting his research: “I want to show legislators what undergraduate research funding supports. This project makes my learning experience more active, as opposed to passively taking in information. Now I want to go deeper into this, whether it’s in grad school or in my career.”
Dr. John Maher, Marshall vice president for research, said, “The work these students are doing is on par with that done at the best universities in the country. This event provides a unique opportunity for members of the legislature to see an aspect of higher education normally hidden from public view, but that is one of the most important tools for developing students for entry into the workplace or postgraduate education.”