Annual FRI Fall Welcome Picnic

Over 450 first-year students attended the Annual FRI Welcome Picnic on Thursday, September 3rd to celebrate their induction into the Freshman Research Initiative, learn about different Research Streams, and meet peers who share their passion for the sciences.

In her speech to the group, TIDES Executive Director Dr. Erin Dolan welcomed one of the FRI’s largest incoming classes by reminding students that the FRI is “the first program in the country to involve students in real research,” starting from their “very first step on campus.” Dr. Dolan added that according to FRI data “more students [in the FRI] graduate with a science degree, stay on in science-related career paths, and pursue graduate education if they participate in FRI.”

IMG_0192Students enjoyed Texas BBQ catered by Pok-e-Joe’s Smokehouse and were encouraged to mingle with Research Educators and stream peer mentors to learn about the different types of research available. Currently, there are over 25 Research Streams in FRI representing most disciplines in the College of Natural Sciences.

Students from all majors in the natural sciences are joining the FRI to try out research for the first time or continue learning after being inspired in high school. Sarah, a marine biology major, is excited to be involved in the FRI, because “hopefully, if I don’t want to do research I’ll find out early, and if I do I’ll get some skills.” Other students, like Biology major Ty, want to find connections and “make some colleagues” in the UT research community.

Just like in the FRI itself, new students are interested in subjects from all corners IMG_0163of modern research.

Jordan Brown decided to use her Biochemistry major to research on genetic therapy, after being inspired during high school. “In my senior year of high school we actually went to a biology conference, and it was talking IMG_0214about all different kinds of gene therapy,” she says, adding that “I just love
anything to do with advancements in cell technology.”

Corbin, a physics major, is fascinated by the concept of the graviton. “Does it exist? My personal goal in life is to discover
the graviton and win the Nobel Prize and invest my money efficiently and retire off of that.” If physics doesn’t pan out, Corbin “will consider being a host on a radio channel.”

Taren likes “all the different aspects that are involved with studying the health of populations, making them healthier,” in areas like “the government, administration, NGOs, research, all that appeals to me.”

Students in their third semester of FRI will be starting their independent research within their streams, or continuing with research started during a summer fellowship. Peer mentors from most streams were available to talk with new students about their research and experience. Carly Dunn and Victor Lam are mentors for the Bioprospecting Stream. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions, collaborate with your peers, and trust that it is going to get easier and easier little by little,” Carly advised. According to Victor, being in a stream makes it easier to build relationships, “because we’re all about the same age, we’re going through the same things.” He adds that some of the most valuable things he gained through the FRI were “the friendships I’ve made with everyone: with the mentors, and the connections I’ve made with the RE, whether I’m in grad school, post doc-ing, I’ll probably contact her every once in a while and just see how things are going.”

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(left to right) REs Dr. Moriah Sandy, Dr. Gregory Palmer, and Dr. Timothy Riedel were among the FRI faculty who attended the picnic

The FRI Welcome Picnic marks the beginning of Stream Sort, a process during which FRI students are placed in one of their top five streams choices.  During stream sort, students attend open houses this Fall to survey labs and decide where they want to work for the Spring 2016 semester.

RE for the Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis stream Dr. Stacia Rodenbusch advises that students “go to as many open houses as possible” to meet the people who they might work with, “because you won’t know until you find something out about them.”

Dr. Tim Riedel, RE of the DIY Diagnostics stream, encourages students to “try to do research in a field that is outside of your major,” not only to try new things but also because learning how to work in new fields “actually makes you a really good, powerful researcher.”

When looking for new recruits, different RE’s look for different traits. Dr. Mike Montgomery, RE of the White Dwarf stream, looks for “motivation and curiosity, which are almost the same thing.” To Dr. Daniel Tennant, RE of the Electronics and Magnetic Materials stream, “collaboration is key,” and Dr. Lauren DePue, RE of the Functional Materials stream says that she doesn’t monitor students: “they get done what they can get done, and it’s at the end of the semester how much work did they put into it.”

Over the past 10 years, the FRI has shown that incorporating undergraduates into novel research labs is not only feasible, but successful. Undergraduate research experiences, which were virtually nonexistent a decade ago, are now being offered in universities across the country through programs like the UT-Austin’s FRI.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

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