Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Undergraduate Institution Leads The Change In Publications -- Yeah!

I work at a predominantly undergraduate based institution.  You might be wondering right now the following question:

What does that exactly mean?

Let me explain.  Furthermore, let me explain how this feature has been highlighted in the science community in terms of peer-reviewed publications -- official reporting methods of reporting scientific progress -- known as "publishing a paper in a journal."

Undergraduate Institution?

I work at California State University at Northridge (CSUN) which is located in Northridge, California.  The campus is located in the heart of the San Fernando Valley.  As I mentioned, the university is centered around teaching students which means that typically the percentage of emphasis is higher for teaching than research.

What does that mean?

At a research university (or R01 university) the time spent on work as a professor is split between teaching and research.  For a campus such as University of California at Los Angeles, the percentage breakdown is 75% Research and 25% Teaching.  Which means that the focus of the university is geared toward research.  Whereas at CSUN, the percentage breakdown is 25% Research and 75% Teaching.  The exact opposite.  The percentages listed above correlate with a couple of other statistics.  Schools such as UCLA offer a Ph.D degree as the highest degree -- whereas CSUN offers a Master's degree as the highest degree.

What is the difference in Research?

R01 institutions typically receive grant funding for research much easier since they are equipped to handle research.  Whereas a California State school will receive state and federal funding from teaching grants to offset the lack of research grants.  The R01 institutions like UCLA rely on research grants to stay alive.  A typical laboratory will have an advisor (Professor), a postdoctoral fellow (a newly graduated Ph.D. student whose moving onto the next step of research), and graduate students on their path toward earning a Ph.D degree.  A few labs will let undergraduate students partake in research -- but very little.

The situation just described above is quite different than that at a typical California State University campus.  There are 23 California State University campuses in California.  Whereas there are 12 University of California campuses in California.  In a typical lab in the chemistry department at CSUN, there will be a Master's student completing research toward a Master's degree.  Additionally, there will be 3-5 undergraduate researchers in the lab.  The lab runs like a laboratory at a University of California university with the exception that the undergraduate students get a better hands on training in research.

This configuration also hinders research to an extent since undergraduate students must focus on their course work and cannot devote a tremendous amount of time toward research.  Right about now, you may be wondering why I bring up this distinction?

The reason is that at a given California State University, the university will accept the top 2/3 of the surrounding high schools graduating class.  At CSUN, the total number of students enrolled with staff sit at around 42,000 total....WOW.  That is similar to a large UC like UCLA.  Furthermore, 60% of students enrolled at CSUN come from a family with an annual household income of less than $30,000.  What?  Yep, less than $30,000 per year total.

Again, why do I bring these statistics up?

Great question.  The reason is that most of our students are first generation college students in their family.  Competing in research while completing their undergraduate degrees.  Recently, the hard work of the students of CSUN was recognized from a research perspective.  Yes, CSUN students who are more diverse than any other California State University campus in the system took charge and published a tremendous amount of research.  Read on below to find out.

Undergraduates Elevate Change In Science!

Recently, I received an e-mail from the Dean of our college.  Our college is the college of science and mathematics at California State University at Northridge.   In that e-mail was the following article linked titled "CSUN Ranked Among Top 25 Rising Star Institutions for Research in North America" which highlights the achievements of CSUN students in research compared to top universities:

California State University, Northridge holds this year’s record for the largest increase in research publications rates in North America, according to a listing of top tier peer-reviewed journals selected by the journal Nature.
The list, created by Nature Index, is made by analyzing research institutions in North America and their research output percentages from 2012 to 2015. Articles in chemistry, life sciences, physical sciences, and earth and environmental sciences published in journals chosen by Nature were the markers.
CSUN Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics Jerry Stinner said being listed among the top 25 Rising Stars is a great honor for the university.
“What a tremendous validation of everything we’ve been trying to accomplish in the college, in all five departments,” he said.  “To say that I’m proud of the faculty is a complete understatement. For Nature to recognize the incredible achievements and hard work of my faculty is beyond anything I could have wished for. The external recognition by a premier science journal is simply incredible.”
CSUN held the highest percent increase in publication rate at more than 190 percent, followed by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U. S. Geological Survey, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University. CSUN is the only public institution of higher education in California listed.

Dean Jerry Stinner is one such example of a first generation college graduate who went onto complete an advanced degree -- a Ph.D. in Biology.   Another professor who has taught at CSUN for over 45 years held a similar view of astonishment:

CSUN biology professor and cancer researcher Steven Oppenheimer, who has taught at CSUN for more than 45 years, said the listing had him “just flabbergasted.”
“This is a blockbuster,” he said. “I think this is the most important research advance for CSUN in the history of CSUN. In my 45 years here, I’ve never seen anything like this — ever. It shows that of all organizations in the country, CSUN made the greatest advance in research from 2012 to 2015 ­— more than Stanford, more than Harvard, more than anywhere! This is unbelievable. It is simply amazing. It’s a reflection of the great work that is being done here.”

Wow.  The author highlights the fact that the wonderful faculty are leading the effort and deserve a large part of the credit.  But, I would highlight the CSUN undergraduate and graduate student who is giving up their extra time to work in the laboratory.  As I mentioned above, at R01 schools like Stanford and Harvard, research is well funded and well staffed with graduate students who take a year of classes and then work on research full time the remainder of their education.  This makes the accomplishments of the undergraduate researchers that much more surprising.

There is a new face of science!

The accomplishments of the students and the university should reflect on the emerging fact that there is a new face of science.  The new face of science is the wide diversity in race and gender that is overtaking science -- which is great.  Science needs to sample the widest range of opinions to be successful.  If various fields of science in America continue down the path taken in the last century which predominantly included only 'white men' then the United States would quickly fall behind in success compared to other cultures and nations.

Today, science sees a wider range of scientists than in previous centuries.  The face of science includes a wider range of ethnicities and gender - which makes American students stronger in the end.  The graduates of CSUN and other undergraduate universities go onto fill the positions (which are badly needed) as bench chemists and technicians in the workforce.  Websites such as "USA.gov" offer a wide range of opportunities to graduates with either a 'B.A.' or a 'B.S.' degree in science.  Of course, the time between graduation and hiring can be long -- therefore, I would suggest starting an online profile immediately.

The positions filled by graduates who do not go onto pursue advanced degrees like a "Ms.D" or a "Ph.D.".  Typically, people believe that these degrees are the most sought after -- when in fact, more scientists have B.S. degrees starting off with.  Now, after working in a company or industry for a while, the company might send the graduate back to school to obtain a Master's degree in a given field or specialty area.


The take home point is that the majority of science is conducted by scientists with undergraduate degrees.  Furthermore, the wide diversity at universities such as CSUN is threatened by President Trump's recent actions reducing federal funding at various agencies.  Additionally, the President's rhetoric has affected the enrollment of international students at universities such as CSUN and others.  This will have a negative impact on the progression of science in the future.  We should be elevating science and celebrating results like the report above.

Being featured in the same categories as Harvard and Stanford is a big accomplishment for such a diverse student population.  The future of science is changing, therefore, the politics and policies need to follow to accommodate that change of direction toward a better and more informed society.  To do that, federal agencies should be receiving more not less money for education and outreach.  Only then, can we start to see a return on our investment in science.

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