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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