Spotlight on Graduate Research

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Spotlight on Graduate Research

Research is inarguably one of the most important aspects of graduate education. Though it may not always take place in a traditional lab setting, it is the foundation of nearly every important technology we use, medicine we take or modern convenience we enjoy.

""From chemistry labs to psychology field work, research has many faces and a myriad of goals. Whether the aim is to construct a better bridge, find meaning in a work of art or learn more about the human body, little can be accomplished without it.

With more than 100 research units at The University of Texas at Austin—ranging from the Center for American History to the Solar Energy Laboratory to the Animal Personality Research Institute—nearly every subject a student or professor could desire to pursue is represented. These research units help lead the charge in investigating the most cutting-edge areas of science and technology.

UT Austin is one of the nation's leading research institutions, with annual research funding reaching nearly $500 million and an economic impact on the state of Texas figuring to $7.4 billion annually.

Shalu SuriFor Shalu Suri, a fourth-year biomedical engineering graduate student, it was the comprehensive nature of UT Austin's research climate as well as the faculty and their exciting research projects that made her choice easy…even though it meant moving across the globe.

“I chose UT because it is a well-renowned university with a good selection of professors,” says Suri, who moved to Austin from India. “I looked at the faculty profiles and visited their lab Web sites to get an idea of what they were working on and that impressed me quite a lot.”

Suri, who received her master’s in Biomedical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, did research for a year and a half before coming to UT Austin to pursue a Ph.D. She is a student of Dr. Christine Schmidt, the Laurence E. McMakin, Jr. Professor of Biomedical Engineering, and is specializing in cellular and tissue engineering; a process that finds ways to help the human body recover from injury using living tissue therapies.

Suri is one of the many graduate students who receive external funding—in her case, from the National Science Foundation—for their research. From internal sources such as the Office for the VP of Research and the Graduate School to federal sources such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Endowment for the Humanities, UT Austin scholars are endowed in a number of ways.

""Along with other students in the lab, Suri and Schmidt are studying ways to aid replacement of lost function and repair injured tissue. Their goal is to develop biomaterials that can be used to help the body regenerate damaged nervous tissue.

So far, this technology has helped hundreds of people dealing with injuries and lost function; an illustration of the impact the research is having on humanity in a broader sense. Research at its best helps people to live better lives, and for Schmidt and her students, that is just what is happening. And Schmidt says that it is her graduate students who really help to drive these groundbreaking ideas and projects in her lab.

“My students basically do everything in the lab,” says Schmidt. “I put a lot of emphasis on having (them) design the projects. I think of myself as more of a guide…a sounding block in a sense,” she says.

Schmidt echoes what is a common sentiment of many professors: graduate students contribute vast amounts of original knowledge to the overall research process.

Stephanie SeidlitsStephanie Seidlits, a fourth-year graduate student in biomedical engineering and another one of Schmidt’s students, says that conducting the majority of the hands-on research prepares students for the future.

“You wouldn’t understand how to integrate all the research projects if you didn’t understand the details of the experiments. You have to have gone through a Ph.D. and understand how you would do that…it’s important training.”

With graduate students bringing so much to the research table, it comes as no surprise that it is often they who help to attract world-renowned professors to the UT Austin campus. One such faculty member is Dr. James Pennebaker, Barbara Pierce Bush Regents Professor of Liberal Arts and the Departmental Chair in the Psychology Department. He and his students are exploring the links between traumatic experiences, expressive writing, natural language use, and physical and mental health. His most recent research focuses on the nature of language and emotion in the real world. Author or editor of 8 books and over 200 articles, Pennebaker has received numerous awards and honors.

“I was looked at from all over as a faculty member; then UT called,” says Pennebaker. “One of the attractions was to have world-class grad students. First of all, you have a really smart group of people who can pursue their own ideas, often based on my ideas. They make my ideas better and more diverse…that was a big draw.”

Jenna BaddeleyJenna Baddeley, a student of Pennebaker’s and a third-year graduate student in social psychology, is a perfect example of this.

Baddeley, who is pursuing a clinical doctorate, is currently working on a project researching the social lives of depressed people. She now runs the project, which was originally conceived by Pennebaker.

In the study, tape recorders are given to people in two groups: people who have depression and people who do not. Baddeley has the participants wear the recorders for several days, and then listens to the tapes to see what goes on in their social lives; a concept that has previously been unstudied.

“We have been trying to look at whether anyone listening to the tapes can tell if the people are depressed,” says Baddeley. “We are surprised (to find) that the differences aren’t bigger.”

""Like many graduate students at UT Austin, Baddeley is taking her professor’s original idea and running with it. She hopes to expand and continue the study by following up with the study’s depressed participants to see if their previous social interaction ratings affect if they still suffer from depression months later.

“Research in general is really important because it’s the way we figure out if our assumptions about the way things ‘really are’ are true… (if they) hold up in the face of scrutiny,” says Baddeley.

Baddeley demonstrates that the value of good graduate students is immeasurable. From taking over professors’ experiments and expanding upon them to contributing wholly original knowledge of their own, UT Austin's graduate students have their hand on the pulse of the future.

“There’s a great way of transmitting knowledge and techniques when you have grad students who are closely involved with faculty,” says Baddeley.

For his part, Pennebaker finds graduate researchers to be invaluable.

“Having great grad students is a real value for good faculty,” says Pennebaker. “And being at a top school, we get applicants that are just scary they’re so good. They’ve got wonderful stories…they’re just a delight to work with.”

March, 2009
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