The Council on Undergraduate Research defines undergraduate research as “an inquiry or investigation conducted by an undergraduate student that makes an original intellectual or creative contribution to the discipline.” The University of San Diego and its Office of Undergraduate Research support and encourage all undergrads to engage, explore and participate in this valuable activity, part of a strong liberal arts education. This Inside USD article is part of an ongoing series to highlight its impact.
Marjorie Patrick, associate professor of biology at USD for 11 years, recently described what she believed is a necessity for all college student researchers.
“If you have a willingness to learn, if you have that curiosity, it’s the most important thing. It can carry you very far in the sciences,” she said. “It’s what propagates the questions you want to pursue in the research.”
So it’s no surprise that Patrick beams when she talks about Nick Day, a USD junior biology major, because he’s demonstrated curiosity and a strong work ethic on a research project — examining gills and ion transport proteins contained in blackskirt tetra fish in the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River, to find out what allows it to live in acidic water that is also low in sodium — since 2010.
“He’s the best student I’ve ever had work in my research lab,” Patrick stated. “Hands down.”
Patrick’s praise is accentuated by the fact that she began working with Day at USD when he did a summer lab internship prior to his senior year of high school. Day, attending Mater Dei Catholic High School at the time, was among a small group of students at the Chula Vista-based school’s budding science academy afforded the chance to work with a USD science professor.
She initially expressed concern about guiding a high school student in her lab sans the normal college-level preparation for her research lab. Foremost, she wanted to be sure Day’s experience would be beneficial. When she learned about Mater Dei’s science academy, the caliber of student she’d work with and about USD’s new-at-the-time partnership with Mater Dei’s academy she became more optimistic.
“A student has to have a certain foundation of biology to understand it,” Patrick said. “I wanted him to come in and understand what he was doing, rather than just, ‘here are some techniques, perform these for me and that’s it.’ That’s being a technician. But, when I work with students, I really want them to understand. There was some reading involved and it required us having discussions, which is very important. If the student can verbalize what they’re doing, then they really understand.”
Day wasn’t sure what to expect, either, but that feeling subsided quickly: “I learned a lot in a short amount of time that summer. Just to come to USD as a high school student and do research, it’s unheard of. Working in a lab with a college professor, I really didn’t know how the interaction would be, but she was so open and welcoming. I was more inclined to work hard because I knew I could have an impact on something.”
Patrick took specific care of the situation and she was pleased.
“By the end, I was ecstatic how good of a research student Nick was in the lab. I introduced him to the techniques being used and the fish he’d be studying. Everything we gave him he’d read through it, understand it and ask good questions. He absorbed the information fast. In those four weeks he mastered the techniques and got results that were amazing.”
His first summer was so rewarding Day was convinced USD could be his college destination. He met faculty members, enjoyed what he was learning and researching and he was appreciating the work ethic involved at the college level.
“I really wanted to come to USD after that,” he said. “I knew about the one-on-one experience, the small teacher to-student ratio. Doing undergraduate research here is a bonus.”
Day, upon being accepted at USD, continued to make great strides. He was a Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) student the summer prior to his freshman year. He received Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) support twice to maintain his summer research project in Patrick’s lab.
“All the experience I gained in her lab was applicable to classes I was taking in biology,” Day said. “All of the techniques I did made a lot more sense. It was easier to understand what was going on, more so, I think, than for other students in the lab classes.”
He’s utilized equipment such as a laser-scanning confocal microscope that produces vivid high-resolution three-dimensional images to study proteins found in the gills of the blackskirt tetra. He’s currently doing replication work on the project and is likely to present a research poster at future conferences, including an American Physiological Society meeting in San Diego in October 2014 and USD’s annual Spring Creative Collaborations, a showcase of USD student-faculty research projects. Patrick said Day’s research is to be prepared to publish next year.
Day’s student experience at USD has been beneficial in other aspects. He got involved in USD’s Equestrian Club. Day initially competed, but he’s more focused now on being the club’s manager. His experience with the horses, though, has piqued his interest to be a large animal veterinarian. He’s also been a trusted lab leader for Patrick. He enjoys helping students by answering their questions, including those asked this past summer by another Mater Dei senior-to-be working in the lab.
“It’s really cool to see the light click on and see that the students are grasping things and having good results. It is Dr. Patrick’s lab, but it felt like my lab.”
Associate Professor of Chemistry Peter Iovine, a faculty leader for USD’s five-year community science partnership with Mater Dei, said he’s been impressed with Day’s progress: “Nick’s success at USD embodies what the program is really about — students getting involved with research early in their career and establishing a close mentoring relationship with faculty. He joined Dr. Patrick’s lab and has never looked back.”
Patrick enjoys seeing the maturation of Day, who still has three-plus semesters and another summer before graduation.
“He’s so at home in the lab,” she said. “It makes me think that if other students can have this experience, multiple summers of research, that by the time they leave USD, they’re operating at a much higher level. And it’s not just, ‘Yes, they’ve gotten the research experience,’ but they’re also applying what they learn in classes, which, in the sciences, you really only learn when you do. The research experience matures the student and accelerates that maturity so that by the time they graduate, someone like Nick will be more like a graduating master’s student. He’s one of the first students in biology at USD to have this type of experience.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Nick Day photo, bottom right, courtesy of Bruce Edwards