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Undergraduates prepare to pioneer own research projects

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Two University of Louisiana at Lafayette professors are working to establish the school’s first Research Experience for Undergraduates site during the 2018 summer semester.

Drs. Katie Costigan and Beth Stauffer were awarded $287,986 by the National Science Foundation to launch the program that will support students who want to study watershed and coastal processes within the southern Louisiana environment.

The grant will enable them to bring 10 undergraduates — only two may be from UL Lafayette — to the area for an eight-week, undergraduate-led immersive program over the next three summers.

“This is one of the first projects that gets people working together and actually engages members of the community with people at UL,” said Costigan, an assistant professor in geosciences. “We’ll have real world applications for the research we are doing, and the students are immersed in that.”

With advisers from the UL Lafayette Office of Sustainability, Civil Engineering Department, T.E.C.H.E. Project, Bayou Vermilion District and Teche-Vermilion Freshwater District, the students will be able to engage and steer their own multi-disciplinary research for the first time in their academic careers.

“It’s a great way to tap into young talent and to really help build these experiences for students who are interested in science as a career,” stated Stauffer, an assistant professor in biology.

Once the initial session begins in June, the students and their advisers, who will help guide the projects, will be brought down to the coast near Cocodrie to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium and then up the Mississippi River to the old river control structures that regulate the flow between the river and the Atchafalaya Basin.

Then, students will propose and engage in their own research along the Vermilion River, as well as attend mentor sessions throughout the eight weeks.

At the end of the summer, the students will present their research at a symposium that will mirror what they could expect from traditional academic conferences.

But both Costigan and Stauffer said the REU is aiming to do more than just expose undergraduates to a career in scientific research. The program is intending to bring more opportunities to underrepresented groups.

“As people, we tend to agree that more diversity in the sciences and in research at universities makes us stronger overall and helps (underrepresented students) see themselves in these jobs,” Stauffer stated. “A lot of the research is showing that you need earlier intervention to help bring students who may not come from the average scientist demographic to see themselves in that path.”

In the end, Costigan said she hopes these efforts will eventually “serve as a model for other universities where you can have these academics and these members of the community addressing real world questions together.”

Students interested in the program will be able to apply on the Institute for Coastal and Water Research’s site in January.