NSF funding boosts undergraduate research experience in MCD Biology

A course-based undergraduate research program is expanding opportunities for biology undergraduates to get faculty-mentored research experience

Jeremy Sanford
Jeremy Sanford
Guido Bordignon
Guido Bordignon

A $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will support an expansion of the number of faculty-led labs offering course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) in the Department of Molecular, Cell, and Developmental (MCD) Biology at UC Santa Cruz.

Principal investigator Jeremy Sanford, professor of MCD biology, launched a pilot program in 2017 which provided research experience for 35 students while fulfilling laboratory course requirements for majors in the department. The program was interrupted by the pandemic, but it’s been up and running again this year. With the new funding from NSF, Sanford and co-principal investigator Guido Bordignon plan to establish four new faculty-led CURE labs for up to 100 students.

“The goal is not just to expand research opportunities for students, but to expand opportunities for students to see themselves as scientists and to understand science as a tool and an approach for solving problems rather than a set of facts to learn,” Sanford said.

This is especially valuable for students from underrepresented groups or who are the first in their families to attend college, said Bordignon, a teaching professor in MCD biology. Longitudinal studies of student cohorts show performance disparities related to ethnicity, gender, and other demographic factors, especially in large lecture classes. But those disparities are much smaller in lab classes, and CURE labs can help shrink the gap even further.

“By allowing students to take ownership of a research project, it gives a strong boost to their ‘science identity’ and can help address the equity gap,” Bordignon said. “It allows them to work closely with a professor, who is now someone beside them in the lab, not just teaching but discussing things with them, so students get to know their professor better and it gives them more confidence.”

Sanford noted that each faculty member brings their own perspective and research questions to the courses, so the students are working on projects related to their professor’s research program. “The students feel like they’re contributing to something important, and it’s exciting for the professor too when you can expand your research group by 20 or 30 brains,” he said. “Some of their ideas may be naive, but you can see their enthusiasm and see them making progress, so it’s really rewarding and energizing.”

“It’s a win-win for everyone involved, including the teaching assistants, who get to support the class as part of a research project,” added Bordignon.

The program will include assessments of student progress and examine its impact on student achievement, including retention and graduation rates. “This kind of evidence-based teaching can be transformative,” Bordignon said.

Sanford said the partnership with Bordignon is important because, as a teaching professor, Bordignon brings expertise in pedagogy that Sanford doesn’t have. “The idea of aligning teaching and research is a major strength of this program, and by fulfilling requirements for the major it’s not adding to the workload,” Sanford said.

Another component of the program will focus on developing partnerships with biotechnology companies in Silicon Valley to provide summer internships for students. The internships will provide not only additional research experience but also networking opportunities that can help students in their careers after graduation.

The pilot program has been funded by a gift from UCSC alumnus George Kraw, along with campus support for renovating lab space in Thimann Laboratories. The new funding is through NSF’s Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) program, which aims to enhance undergraduate STEM education, broaden participation in STEM, and build capacity at Hispanic Serving Institutions.

“We were able to leverage the support from a donor to begin to grow the program,” Sanford said. “By expanding the number of labs over the next three years, we will get a lot of data on student success. The goal is to use that data to demonstrate the value of the program and get additional support to implement it more broadly. The notion of being able to offer ten CURE labs isn’t insane. We’ve expanded the number of MCD faculty, and I think we can pull it off.”