Introducing First-year Students to Research Opportunities

Posted on January 27th, 2012 by

First-year students, like Rachel Scharf '15, gain valuable experience in the lab during January-Term (Photo by Nick Theisen '15).

When Gustavus Adolphus College received a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the fall of 2008, one of the proposed initiatives was to intentionally provide more scientific research opportunities for first-year students.

In order to achieve this goal, the Gustavus departments of biology and chemistry took advantage of the opportunity for experiential learning emphasized in January-Term courses. They drew inspiration from courses such as “Introductory Research Experience in Molecular and Cell Biology,” first offered by Professor of Biology Colleen Jacks. The course served as the primary model for the current January-Term research courses being taught by Associate Professor of Biology and Chemistry Jeffrey Dahlseid and Assistant Professor of Biology Karla Marz.

Between the two of them, Dahlseid and Marz have 17 first-year students enrolled this January in “Introduction to Biomolecular Research.”

“The course provides an immersive and experiential learning opportunity for students interested in and wanting to do scientific research,” Dahlseid said. “The students learn key skills that will help prepare them for success in future research endeavors, by doing experiments to address original research questions.”

Students in the class this January recognize that this is a unique experience that many first-year students at colleges across the country are not afforded.

“One of the reasons I was drawn to Gustavus was because of the chance to participate in research as an undergraduate student, and a first-year at that,” Erin Traxler said. “This class seemed like a perfect way to get my feet wet. I knew it would be a unique experience that would bolster my resume and applications to future research programs and professional/graduate schools.”

“This course was an opportunity to do research first hand and see if this is something I want to do for the rest of my life,” Michelle Hulke said. “The way the course is organized really makes learning intense and fun. We were thrown into the lab with some basic knowledge and told to go. Suddenly we were immersed in Dr. Dahlseid’s research, preparing medias, contemplating problems, and making decisions that affected the course of the research. It was absolutely amazing to take a front seat approach in what we were doing.”

Some students enrolled in the course with specific career paths already in mind.

“I decided to take this class because I am interested in pursuing a career in psychiatry,” Sydney Firmin said. “Professor Marz’s focus is on circadian rhythms and I thought that this was a unique opportunity as an overlap between my major in psychology and scientific research.”

Professor Jeffrey Dahlseid works with Michelle Hulke '15 in the lab (Photo by Nick Theisen '15)

Traxler plans to apply for medical school after Gustavus, while Hulke wants to work directly with animals someday. Dahlseid says that future career plans of his students are important to him and his colleagues as well.

“I devote specific attention to exploring scientific research as part of students’ career interests and vocations,” Dahlseid said. “In fact, I have held discussions with them about their sense of vocation, their vision of the happy life, and the place of science in relation to these subjects.”

While learning research and laboratory techniques are key parts to the class, presenting results at the end of the term is also a valuable experience that the students will learn.

“A critical aspect of scientific research involves communicating results to scientific peers. Students learn this by doing it,” Dahlseid said. “Students in my class will present their project and results to Dr. Marz’s class, and students in her class will do the same for my students.”

A key opportunity for the January-Term students, as well as other students who pursue research at Gustavus during the summer months, is the chance to present their results at a symposia sponsored by the Midstates Consortium for Math and Science. Gustavus was able to use funds from the HHMI grant to join the consortium and provide students with the valuable experience of presenting their research to their peers and professors from other colleges in the Midwest.

Sophomore Carl Schiltz, who took the January-Term course in 2011, presented results from his research at Gustavus last summer at the Midstates Consortium Symposium at the University of Chicago.

Erin Traxler '15 was one of 17 first-year students who took advantage of unique research courses during this year's January-Term (Photo by Nick Theisen '15).

“The Midstates Consortium was my first exposure to the greater scientific community,” Schiltz said. “It was an experience that challenged me to know my material well enough to speak about it on par with students and professors of every discipline.”

Because of the overwhelming number of advantages and experiences provided by the January-Term research course, students are quick to recommend the course to future first-year students.

“I would definitely recommend this class to any first-year that loves steep learning curves and wrapping their head around complex problems,” Hulke said. “To anyone who is willing to put everything they have into the course, the rewards that come out are beyond comparison.”

“I would enthusiastically recommend this class to other first-years and have in fact already recommended it to a few prospective students,” Traxler said. “This course could be considered a crash course to scientific research. It is certainly overwhelming at first, like jumping into the deep end as Professor Dahlseid puts it, but eventually you become confident and proficient in what you’re doing and with what you’ve learned. It’s a great sense of accomplishment.”

For more information about research opportunities at Gustavus, go online to


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin


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