Undergraduate research is a petri dish for budding scientists

Hannah Parker’s mucky boots sat next to her on the bus as she caught rides to the sheep center on the Virginia Tech campus. Those same boots made the trek back to the lab where the she was part of a team studying how an epidermal growth factor impacts pregnancy in cattle at the cellular level.

Even though her boots drew questioning eyes on occasion, she relished her unique opportunity to do research as an undergraduate student.

“I’m really lucky to have participated in every aspect of this research,” said Parker, who recently graduated with dual bachelor’s degrees in human nutrition, foods, and exercise and animal and poultry sciences. She worked with Alan Ealy, an associate professor in animal and poultry sciences. “It probably would have never happened if I had not come to Virginia Tech.”

For students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, research opportunities don’t have to wait until graduate school. Thanks to financial awards such as Pratt Scholarships, undergraduates can start working on projects early in their academic careers and during the summer months.

Scholarships have allowed students like Hannah Parker (above and below) and Edgar Correa (above) to participate in undergraduate research programs that prepared them for graduate school and professional careers.

It’s something that sets Virginia Tech apart from other institutions.

“It’s an experience to see what you could work on in the future,” said Edgar Correa, who recently graduated with a degree in crop soil and environmental sciences. Correa was part of a research team that is studying genetic markers in soybeans with Assistant Professor Bo Zhang. “The scholarship provided funding so I did not have to get another job and was able to focus on research.”

These in-the-field experiences help to prepare students for graduate school and careers. Research experiences differentiate Virginia Tech students from everyone else when applying for jobs or graduate school. Parker and Correa started their projects as sophomores and plan to continue them in graduate school this year.

Research opportunities are the gateway to the future.

“I have been exposed to research on the way to graduate school and learned what it would be like for me to go through developing an idea through the process,” Correa said, noting that the project has helped him gain a better understanding of how to write proposals for grant funding, polish his resume, and give presentations with confidence.

“The availability of fellowships and scholarships is a big deal,” said Ealy.

Plus, scholarships do more than provide opportunities on campus. For example, Correa’s project could help provide cost savings to producers in the soybean industry. He recently presented the information at a campus research symposium. Parker shared her research at a national conference in Washington, D.C. this summer, and she has worked with research peers in San Diego and Austin, Texas.

“It helps get students in the lab early in their careers.”

“It opened doors for me,” said Parker. “I got to meet researchers across the country. I got to see how the lab connects to the whole animal — and the world.”