Sonia Zarate is right where she wants to be — and that’s to the benefit of every student at the University of San Diego. As the new director of USD’s Office of Undergraduate Research, Zarate wants to help students make the most of their education and set them on a personal path toward success.
“Academic excellence is achieved when we provide students both theory and experiential experiences,” she says, “Students learn better when they hear it, see it and do it; research is the do. Additionally, when students are taught the process of generating new knowledge, they become vested and engaged in their own learning process.
“Universities should strive to include research activities into the programming for all undergraduate students,” Zarate continues. “It becomes even more so important for students to engage in research activities as undergraduates, because this is the time that they are deciding what to do. By participating in research now, students can make an informed decision about whether or not to include research in their academic and professional careers.”
On a larger scale, “as a nation we need to come up with innovative solutions to today’s and tomorrow’s problems. Innovation is rooted in creativity and research activities serve to fosters not only critical, but creative thinking skills,” Zarate says. “Research is also a collaborative process where diversity of background and training can drive innovation, so we really need everyone engaged.”
Speaking from personal experience, Zarate looks at today’s college students much the same as when she was pointed in the right direction as an undergraduate biology major at Cal Poly Pomona.
“As a first-generation to go to college and the first person in my family with an advanced degree I assumed I’d go on to medical school or into the medical profession because I loved science and had only ever met physicians,” she explains. “I had never considered research because I did not know any researchers. I was fortunate to have a professor who reached out to me and asked me what I wanted to do. I said I liked genetic engineering because I was hearing about GMOs and I thought it was so futuristic, so cool. His reply was ‘that’s not really a medical career, that’s scientific research.’ That was the first time I heard that research could be a career and the first time I even considered getting a graduate degree.”
The professor invited Zarate to work in a summer undergraduate research program he directed and the experience set her education career in motion. She went on to earn a PhD in Plant Molecular Biology at University of California, Riverside and was awarded both a National Science Foundation (NSF) Pre-Doctoral Fellowship and a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship. She comes to USD after more than four years as associate director of UCLA’s Undergraduate Research Center-Sciences.
“I know firsthand the difference mentorship can make and I hope to provide that to USD’s undergraduates,” she said.
Zarate’s goal in her new role at USD also focuses on helping students identify what they are passionate about — whatever that is — and know research can help them get there. Speaking from her experiences at UCLA, Zarate says that once her students identified their passions, “they went on to do amazing things.”
USD has taken important steps to raise the profile of undergraduate research in all disciplines. Programs such as the Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience (PURE) and Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) are vital. Knowing that engaging in research helps undergraduates gain self-confidence, retains them in college and increases the likelihood they will pursue advanced degrees, Zarate and the Office of Undergraduate Research are actively seeking out additional sources of funding to support students, especially those that would not be able to participate without funding. External support from foundations such as Keck, Doheny, Coca-Cola Scholars, McCarthy, Farrell and Beckman Scholars is making undergraduate research possible at USD.
Notably, USD’s annual Creative Collaborations Undergraduate Research Conference has grown from 92 students in 2006 to more than 200 who will participate April 10 thanks to the generous support of donors.
Being new to USD, Zarate is meeting people across campus, learning more about the landscape of research being done. Having had the opportunity to review applications and abstracts turned in last month for SURE funding and Creative Collaborations, Zarate expresses delight at the caliber of research being done by faculty and students.
“I look forward to making many more connections and collaborating with others on and off campus,” she said. “I especially look forward to working with CSL to create opportunities to engage undergraduates in research done in collaboration with the community. Service is what sets USD apart from other institutions and having the opportunity to couple research to service was a major factor in my coming to USD.”
— Ryan T. Blystone