Undergrads show off research projects


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Nico Aguilar stood by his corkboard, watching roughly 200 spectators and graduate students milling around the second floor of the University Capitol Centre on Wednesday. When someone stopped in front of his display, the University of Iowa senior jumped into a complex explanation of brain cancer.

The 21-year-old integrated physiology major has been researching how brain cancer affects patients for about a year.

By splicing and reshaping DNA, Aguilar is able to insert a tracking device of sorts into cancerous cells to see what’s happening inside the cell.

“It took a lot of steps,” he said, as he presented at the Fall Undergraduate Research Festival on Wednesday. “A lot of failure, a lot of tweaking things and getting them right.”

This is only the second year for the festival — which is hosted by the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates — but the number of undergraduate researchers has almost doubled since last year.

“Last year was the first year we had the event, so we were able to really go out and promote it more this year,” Bob Kirby, the director of the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates. “We have a very broad range of students who are involved in research, and we’ve been finding better ways of communicating with those students.”

The center encourages undergraduate students to work closely with their mentors — another reason for the rapid expansion, Kirby said.

“The mentors realize just how important it is for their students to present their work, and this is a great opportunity for them to do so,” Kirby said. “It enhances student learning and increases the amount of research done on campus, so we’ve reached two of our goals.”

Student researchers, such as Aguilar, who were new to the this year’s event agreed the knowledge they gain is worth the time they spend on their projects. Through his research and future work, Aguilar said, he someday hopes to develop preventative measures for brain cancer.

“You learn so much more researching than anywhere else,” he said. “There’s so much potential for students, and there’s so much here that’s not offered at other schools.”

And this work can benefit students as they move to the graduate level.

“Students who are going to go onto graduate school want to prove they can take the initiative,” said UI Associate Professor Robert Bork, the head of the art-history division in the School of Art and Art History. “If we were looking at graduate students who are coming into the university, those with research would stand out from the crowd.”

Student researchers may apply for grants from the UI, from colleges in the UI, and from outside sources.

Though student research may be limited to how much grant money is received, Bork said, he feels the research gained from the experience is invaluable.

“It isn’t something you learn in an everyday class,” he said.

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