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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Farewell from the graduating Battalion staff of 2024
Farewell from the graduating Battalion staff of 2024
The BattalionMay 4, 2024

Q&A: Goal: Engage Undergrad Researchers

 

 

David Cohen, photo desk assistant, sits down with Duncan MacKenzie, associate professor of biology and associate director for Honors and Undergraduate Research.
THE BATTALION: Why did you choose your specific research field, which concerns hormones?
MacKenzie: I’m interested in how animals work. My background is in hardcore zoology, so I’m interested in where hormone systems come from and how they have changed over time. The way we study that is to look broadly across different animals and their endocrine system. So there are a lot of interesting questions about hormones and how they function that can only be answered by looking at different animals. I came out of a program at Berkeley where we were interested in basic animal function and to this day I still work on that.
THE BATTALION: Over the 30 years that you’ve worked here, how do you think the university’s focus toward undergraduate research has changed?
MacKenzie: One thing that has changed quite obviously is that for the first 20 years that I was here only honors students could do research. Each year there were only about 15 to 20 students that did a formal research thesis. So Dr. [Sumana] Datta and Dr. [Robert] Webb started the Undergradute Research Scholars program and the objective of said program was to provide a formal thesis experience for any student across any discipline on campus. What that has allowed us to do is to expand the reach of rigorous research expectations of students in a much broader area.
THE BATTALION: How have the faculty reacted to the fact that students are gaining the opportunity to do more research?
MacKenzie: Generally, it’s been extremely positive. There are a lot of faculty, such as us in the sciences, that will tell you we’ve been doing this for a long time. Part of what we’ve been trying to do in this office is to make sure that faculty in areas which are traditionally less recognized for undergraduate research are aware of its benefits. What we’re finding is that there are opportunities for research all over campus and some of them may have been cryptic in the past, so they might need a little bit of incentive to blossom.
THE BATTALION: How do you go about approaching the students in the disciplines that have less obvious research opportunities and informing them of the potential benefits of participating?
MacKenzie: We’re really doing two things: One is we’re directly working with faculty, those who are actively participating in undergraduate research, and we’re providing them with some financial support so their programs can expand. The other is we’re trying to provide better information to students regarding how to get engaged in research.
THE BATTALION: Do you think the university is actually committing to diversifying research in all areas?
MacKenzie: Traditionally, we’re an engineering institution, so it makes sense that most of our heavier infrastructure would be in those areas. But I have to say, I’m very encouraged when I go to less prominent programs and see that there are strong opportunities everywhere. We’re still hoping to provide more in the college of business, but in general there has been very strong progress. You’d be surprised where the opportunities are, so we just have to provide the motivation for both students and faculty to get involved.
THE BATTALION: How do you create awareness in the students of their potential to do research?
MacKenzie: I think one of the most effective ways is to expose them to peers that are doing similar work now. That’s what we’ve been trying to do with the ambassadors program. I think that one-to-one student interaction is the most effective way to foster our program.
THE BATTALION: Do you think all students should be encouraged to do research?
MacKenzie: The simple fact is that there simply won’t be that many opportunities available. However, I do think that all students can benefit from a research experience. Sometimes, that benefit is knowing that you don’t want to do research. If you’re going to graduate school in any way, it’s probably a good idea to figure out whether you like it or not as soon as possible.
THE BATTALION: What are the biggest improvements you’re looking to make to undergraduate research?
MacKenzie: We need to make sure the students are well informed about the opportunities that are available to them. I think we also need to make sure that faculty are adequately supported financially for research, and that they are recognized for their participation in mentoring undergraduates. It’s a very time-consuming process, so we’d like to redefine that process. We keep trying to think of ways to provide more support, so we try to identify sources of funds or at least support student travel to national meetings so they can showcase Texas A&M research on the national and international stage.

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