For 22 years, NMSU program has inspired undergraduate research by Billy Huntsman ’16

The William Conroy Honors College at New Mexico State University will host the 23rd annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium on April 27. Early in the spring semester there will be a call for applications, and interested students can submit an abstract to give an outline of their planned presentation.

URCAS was the brainchild of former Honors College Dean William Eamon. 

“He wanted to find ways to encourage undergraduates to get involved in research and scholarly activity and to really highlight what they do,” said current Honors College Dean Miriam Chaiken.

Students from every college on the NMSU campus are eligible to participate in URCAS, presenting their research either in paper or poster presentations or in creative-arts presentations.

“Paper and poster presentations are the most common for students in the STEM fields,” Chaiken said. “But last spring we had one session dedicated to dancers. They were students in the Kinesiology and Dance Department and these students had, for their senior project, choreographed dances for their fellow students to perform.” 

Other nontraditional presentations include English majors reading poetry or Creative Media students presenting screenplays or even short films.

The research included in the presentations is highly diverse, and topics have included everything from international economic policy, to analyses of Plato’s writings, to the degrees of strength of varying concrete mixtures. “The presentations run the entire gamut of what people at this university do and research,” Chaiken said.

“Many of the students have spent the academic year working on their research, but some have been involved for several years prior to presenting at URCAS,” Chaiken said. 

The students may have first gotten involved in their research by being part of a professors’ research group, a graduate students’ group, or their research may be completely independent.

Most of the students who present are juniors or seniors but the event is open to any undergraduate-level student.

Sara Kelley’s and Kevin Perez’s 2016 URCAS presentation explained the biodiversity of arachnids in the Nutt Grasslands of New Mexico and whether solar facilities have an effect on the ecology of arachnids.

Engineering student Glen Throneberry’s presentation focused on differently shaped wings and their benefits for nano air vehicles. “The work I did for that project inspired me to attend NMSU for graduate school and work on similar research,” Throneberry said. “The presentation was very beneficial as I have had to give many research presentations since then and it was a good opportunity to practice my presentation skills in a low pressure environment surrounded by my peers.”

Biochemistry student Daniela Barraza’s presentation was on the transmembrane receptor Btub, which is a bacterium prevalent in fresh water. “My goal is to determine its role given that understanding the biogenesis of the outer membrane in gram-negative organisms is key for the identification of potential antibiotic targets,” she said. “This fall we were able to submit a scientific manuscript based on this project to the journal of Molecular Microbiology and we are very excited about that!”

Barraza credits her experience in URCAS with developing her competitiveness as a graduate-school candidate.

“My experience at URCAS helped me get prepared to participate in the national conference called SACNAS,” she said. “It also made my graduate school applications stronger! I recently received an invitation to interview at one of my top choices for grad school and it all goes back to the experience that I have acquired through opportunities like URCAS.”

“We really encourage freshmen to attend URCAS even if they’re not presenting so they can get a sense of what it’s all about,” Chaiken said. 

Faculty members from the Honors College moderate the URCAS sessions.

“It’s always been interesting that the faculty request to be assigned to sessions that don’t have anything to do with their disciplines, because they always learn something from the experience,” Chaiken said.

For example, a beloved late professor of German, Richard Rundell, frequently asked to be assigned to sessions dealing with engineering and animal science.

“He said he always learned something new from the students,” Chaiken said. “As professors we’re lifelong learners and that’s the best part of working with undergrads who are really engaged in what they’re doing. They convey their enthusiasm for their subject matter in these presentations.”

Chaiken said the number of NMSU students who participate in URCAS has steadily increased over the past 22 years.

Just this past year, she said, URCAS had more than 110 students apply to present their research and many others participated in the preparation for the event. “URCAS is, from start to finish, a student-run event,” Chaiken said. “The college coordinates the logistics and the budgets, but the design of the program, the advertising poster, the content of the presentations, and posters, and performances are all the product of undergraduate students.”

Chaiken said the college collaborates with the Art Department’s graphic-design class, and teams in this graphic-design class develop thematic logos for URCAS’s advertising poster. “The winning individual or team becomes the project director for all the rest of the production of the URCAS materials, which includes an advertising poster, a T-shirt design, PowerPoint template, and the event program.”

A number of mentoring programs at NMSU encourage their students to participate in URCAS and provide mentorship along the way, such as the Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) program, the Alliance for Minority Participation (AMP) program and the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP).

As an example of this encouragement and mentorship, during the summer, six students in CAMP participated in a six-week Medicinal Plants Workshop. This workshop gave them experience in background investigation, classroom presentations, project planning and time in the lab.

“It’s really a good way to get a taste of what we have to do when we’re presenting papers or posters at a conference,” Chaiken said. “The students gain confidence in their abilities, being in front of a crowd and making their research intelligible for people who aren’t familiar with their field.”

Chaiken said the experience also looks good on a resume for students who later apply for graduate school. 

“This shows both graduate schools and potential employers that the student has not taken the path of least resistance,” Chaiken said. “These students set an ambitious goal for themselves.”

As URCAS take place at the end of the spring semester, “when everyone is really tired,” “but you come to URCAS and you get reenergized by the productivity of all of these students,” Chaiken said. “It reminds all of us why we are so happy to be working at a university. It’s why we’re here.”

Clara Hansen, a junior biology major, presented her project on vocal communication of budgerigar parrots at the 2017 Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts Symposium (URCAS).

Ryan Kirby and 11 other Sundt Honors Seminar course students studied climate change in Hawaii over spring break in 2016. Kirby is pictured here at the Honolulu Fish Auction. His group’s 2016 URCAS presentation focused on socioeconomics, specifically, how climate change affects the financial stability of a place like Hawaii.

Jake Bennett, right, and other students present their research posters at Corbett Center during the 2016 Undergraduate Research and Creative Arts (URCAS) symposium.