SYMP 4-5
Long-term research studies and undergraduate students: Making the most of four years

Tuesday, August 12, 2014: 10:10 AM
Camellia, Sheraton Hotel
Lynn M. Christenson, Biology Department, Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
Elise S. Gornish, Plant Sciences, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA
Will Ryan, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Thomas E. Miller, Department of Biological Science, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Stacey L. Halpern, Biology Department, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR

There are two major factors that typically contribute to the avoidance of long-term studies in Ecology; limited funding opportunities and length of graduate student training programs (short-term).  Together, these factors have led to the dearth of long-term studies reported in the literature, leaving many worthy systems, habitats, and questions unexplored.  Given the importance of long-term research and the constraints that limit it, including undergraduate students in ones research is beneficial to all involved.  To be successful, the long-term research goals must include interesting questions that can only be answered through the long-term observation or experimental manipulation of said phenomenon and that undergraduate students have the opportunity to develop and test their own questions related to the project.  Undergraduates can provide continuity in long-term project data collection, management and analyses.

Providing research opportunities to undergraduates benefits both the students and the project. We have found that attracting students within their freshman or sophomore years is most productive to the project and the students.  We expose our students to these projects in multiple ways; in regular courses, as independent research projects, as paid lab interns/summer students or as senior theses projects.   


Our most successful collaborations with students involve attentive mentorship early in our students' careers.  Students who become involved in our long-term projects through our courses and who pursue research opportunities in our labs can contribute significantly to all aspects of long-term research projects (including data collection, management and analysis).  Mentorship occurs at multiple levels, where the principle investigators (PI's) establish the rigour, procedures and skills necessary to the project that can then be passed on by the highly trained students to newer students on the project.  When research associates (paid positions) are part of the project (you were fortunate enough to secure funding), these associates are also important mentors, bridging the gap between PI's and undergraduates. 

Many of the questions regarding policy decisions, management plans and validation of existing ecological theories remain partially and in some instances, completely unanswered.  Short-term studies have provided insight into mechanisms that may govern some of these questions, but longer term integration of these mechanisms with the changing environment are often missing.  Undergraduate students can provide continuity in collection and management of long-term data, contributing to improved understanding as well as establishing themselves as our future investigators.