Getting to work side by side with some of Texas Tech’s top research professors is a boon for students at the Center for the Integration of STEM Education and Research, or CISER. It was established in 1992 and was initially known as the Texas Tech Howard Hughes Medical Institute Undergraduate Science Education Program.
VJ Jain, a Tech grad in computer science and president of the CISER Scholar Service Organization, which serves as the organizing entity for the program’s social and service activities, says that more than 530 undergraduate students have benefited from the program in its 27 years.
“The focus of research should start at the grassroots level in college, which is undergraduates,” he says. “Why CISER is important is because CISER actually facilitates the research, because not all the universities have the funding for student research. It’s mostly volunteering or maybe some kind of funding like part time funding, or 10 hours, but that’s not good enough for research, or active research that is publishable. That’s what CISER allows you to do. We’re actually providing funding for all the scholars to work up to 20 hours a week to do active research.”
The Howard Hughes involvement ended in 2014. Those grants were valued at $8.5 million. Today, the CISER Scholar Program relies on donations and the support from colleges, departments, and administrators in the Texas Tech system. The CH Foundation is providing grants of $50,000 a year for a three-year period.
Jain says CISER focuses on two areas.
“The education part, we have education scholars in CISER as well, it’s about the education program and what they’re doing is they’re helping at the elementary and middle schools and they want to become teachers. So, what they’re research involves is actually working with middle school and high school kids and creating programs. We also have something called traveling labs, where we have kits for certain courses where they’re taken to different schools around Texas, West Texas, so we can teach them. The research part is that we’re just trying to incorporate what we learn academically and to apply it through research.”
He says that more than 90 percent of CISER scholars go on to work toward master’s and PhD degrees. The experience students gain by working on research while getting paid for 20 hours a week can show prospective employers or graduate school administrators a lot.
For example, one student who worked on breast cancer research as a Texas Tech undergrad now has a fellowship with the Mayo Clinic.
“I think doing research at an undergraduate level is a really good idea and the university’s initiative to push that is great because I think research really trains us to ask the right questions, solve problem and take initiative of our project. I think that’s a very important skill regardless of if you want to be in academia and research or not, just to be a productive citizen or human being, you need to know how to solve problems. Where to go if you are stuck somewhere to learn about mentor relationships. I think these are important skills to have as a human being,” he says.
CISER scholars sometimes enter the program already having research experience. They can come from the Program in Inquiry and Investigative Thinking, known as Pi-Squared, which is for incoming freshmen. The Pi-Squared students can transition into CISER after a period of time and a review of their work in research.
This year there are 35 CISER scholars doing undergraduate research in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Fourteen will earn their under graduate degrees in May and 12 are graduate students. Jain says having too many more than that and the program could be more difficult to manage.
“If you are doing a hundred people it will be a little more difficult to keep with the goal and be organic. With 35 people it’s very organic that you can continue evolving. With a hundred people it would be a little more difficult to change.