FRI Turns 10!

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FRI faculty, students and stakeholders met on October 16 and 17 to celebrate the program’s 10 Year Anniversary. The anniversary weekend had two events: the FRI Industry Open House and the FRI Anniversary Picnic. FRI is now an ingrained part of the UT research community. This year’s incoming class was close to 900 students, and the Accelerated Research Initiative is opening the program’s doors to transfer students and others who missed the opportunity during their first year.

The first event of the anniversary weekend was the FRI Industry Open House, which is designed to build bridges and collaborations between FRI and industry partners. During the open house, small working groups of FRI faculty, students, peer mentors, administrators and industry representatives shared their goals for FRI and their vision of what the next 10 years of the program would look like.

Erin Dolan, Executive Director of the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science, started the event by presenting the growth of FRI over the past 10 years. Prior to FRI, only a small number of undergraduates had access to research opportunities in faculty labs on campus. According to Dolan, the FRI offered “access to a group of students who wouldn’t normally have access to a research experience. Today, around 40 percent of the College of Natural Sciences incoming class participate in FRI.”

Commenting on her experiences touring FRI streams as a fundraiser for the Dean’s office, Kristine Haskett said “You never know what you’re going to hear when you walk through an FRI stream.” She cited the ability of students from the Antibiotics stream to determine strep throat cultures by smell alone.

David Vanden Bout, the Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education in CNS, said that if he could go back to his undergraduate years, he’d definitely enroll in a program like the FRI. “In the end, the FRI is absolutely transformative” he said, adding that “it’s the way science education should be.”

Research Educators present their ideas for the furture of the FRI.
Research Educators present their ideas for the future of the FRI.

Dolan then directed the tables to brainstorm ideas for the future of FRI. After 45 minutes of intense discussions, the groups presented their recommendations.

Ideas for the next 10 years included increasing student participation by introducing graduate students to lead research, developing more interdisciplinary and inter-college research streams, and developing stronger partnerships with industry leaders.

The FRI is already expanding its influence between disciplines with one of its newest streams, System Security, which is a collaborative stream between Computer Science and Electrical Engineering to improve online security in ways that incorporate both industry and academia. Research Educator, Ashay Rane, teaches his students critical thinking and communication skills so that they can “open up new avenues” in the realm of internet security.

Kelsey Evans, the Assistant Dean for External Relations for the College of Natural Sciences, oversees development operations. Evans asserted that the program speaks for itself. “People do not need convincing when it comes to the FRI,” she said. Evans and her team are currently working to create a $10 million to $12 million endowment to sustain the FRI as HHMI funding lessens over the next five years.

On Saturday, former FRI Director and co-founder, Sarah Simmons joined a group of Research Educators, faculty, donors, alumni and students for the FRI Anniversary Picnic.

Erin Dolan (left) and Sarah Simmons represent leadership spanning the life of the FRI.
Erin Dolan (left) and Sarah Simmons represent leadership spanning the life of the FRI.

Director Dolan began by talking about the first time she’d heard of the concept of a freshman research project. It happened while serving on a National Science Foundation panel with Sarah Simmons.

Dolan said that 10 years ago, she had had her doubts about whether the program would attain its goals. But speaking on Saturday, she said “here we are: 10 years later, 40-odd streams later, and 6,000-plus alumni later, and apparently it worked.” Dolan added that while completing traditional coursework it took her until graduate school to move from thinking about science as it was taught in school to a science based on discovery of the unknown.

Simmons, now a Senior Program Officer at HHMI, also shared a few remarks with the group, saying that since the beginning of the program, founders told themselves that “we just have to keep going until it’s too big to kill,” concluding that after a decade “I think we’re finally there.” According to Simmons, FRI started when a small group of faculty and administrators decided to do something about the concrete problems they would come up against in the College of Natural Sciences. Today, FRI is so influential that it is shaping the national dialogue about science education, causing leaders to question what the fundamentals of a university experience should include.

“We could not have imagined this,” Simmons said, reminding us that 10 years from now,  FRI will probably be something even greater than we can imagine today.

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

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Faces of FRI: Dalton Burch

Burch uses his woodworking skills to solve problems in lab as well as in life in his workshop.
Burch uses his woodworking skills to solve problems in lab as well as in life.

After spending all four years in the Freshman Research Initiative, Dalton Burch graduated this spring with a Bachelor’s of Science in Biochemistry. He worked as a researcher, a mentor, and a TA for the Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis Stream, becoming a leader through his inclusive nature and passion for the research. Burch spent his entire undergraduate career, including all three summers, with the Nano Stream.

After spending over 1,500 hours in lab, Burch played a part in most of the projects in the Nano Stream, as well as his own independent research. For his own work, Burch studied bimetallic nanoparticles, comparing different ratios of two metals to find out which would give the best catalytic performance, known as a synergistic effect. Even with a full lab schedule, Burch still found time to prepare presentations for middle school students during the summer, and to support the student researchers in his charge as a mentor and then a teaching assistant.

Dr. Stacia Rodenbusch, the Research Educator for the Nano Stream, thinks that Burch “really likes running the show.” Rodenbusch asked Burch to join her stream as a freshman, after watching him work with other students in his research methods class. “He was really engaged and active,” she said, adding that “he has always been one of the most outgoing, inclusive people in the group.”

After graduation, Burch started looking for jobs in the start-up realm, searching for a small company that he would be able to grow with. Burch also wanted a post that would challenge him, saying that “that’s the way I’ve been groomed in the FRI, to want to think about the big problems.”

Burch got his break when he received an e-mail from the University with two potential jobs, one for the Texas Alcohol and Beverages Committee, and another for a brand new start-up AptamiR Therapeutics: he applied to both. By this point, Burch had learned that most job openings were inundated with applicants after even a few days online, so he made it a habit to check listings every six hours, and tried to apply for openings no more than two days old. This time, it worked out.

AptamiR extended a position as a research assistant after an extensive interview process which took from mid-July to the end of September. In the meantime, Burch worked as a tool rental technician at Home Depot. “Basically, my entire job … was fixing things that people would bring in,” he said.

Burch’s knowledge of mechanics and woodworking helped him in lab as well. Dr. Rodenbusch remembers a point during Burch’s time in the lab when he designed and made bottle holders to organize containers in the fume hood, which the Nano Stream still uses today. “[Dalton] embodies that attitude of ‘okay, here’s what I need, I’m going to just make it happen,” she said.

When he started work at AptamiR, Burch was relieved. “Nothing against Home Depot,” he said, “but it’s not a biotechnology company.”

Dalton Burch at the new AptamiR lab.
Dalton Burch at the new AptamiR lab.

Now, Burch takes the commute to AptamiR’s North Austin lab in the morning, taking advantage of flexible hours to beat the traffic. He checks on the freezer and current projects, then meets with the lab’s research associate, also a recent UT graduate, to plan out what is needed for the day. As it turns out, the first few months of a startup are learning experiences in networking. Agents need to be ordered, equipment checked and new contacts made.

So far, Burch is grateful that he learned to read primary literature during his undergraduate years. Most of the research he does can’t be found in textbooks, it’s too new. So knowing how to do primary literature searches, reading review articles, and going through references has helped Burch to navigate a new field of expertise. “While I don’t have a map,” Burch said, “now I at least have a compass.”

The startup is working create microRNA-based treatments that target fat cells, which it hopes can be used to combat obesity. Burch enjoys focusing on the issue, which affects quality of life in the US and worldwide. “The problems at work don’t feel like problems, because it doesn’t feel like work,” he said.

Starting his new career hasn’t lessened Burch’s passion for the FRI. Burch still returns to have lunch with friends and check on the lab where he spent so much time while he was here. Looking forward, Burch entertains the possibility of becoming a research educator for the FRI or an equivalent program at another university. Dr. Rodenbusch thinks that Burch would be an excellent choice for the position, explaining that his experience in industry will help students interested in careers outside of academia develop their perspectives. He still hasn’t ruled out working in industry however, saying that “it is nice to get paid for something that you love to do.”

Kate Thackrey

UT Journalism Student

Look for a new Faces of FRI feature the first friday of every month to learn about current and former exemplary FRI students.