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New Mexico State University

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NMSU program strengthens research, confidence among undergraduates

Discovery is taking new forms at New Mexico State University as an undergraduate research program in the College of Arts and Sciences works to foster both academic achievement and personal growth.


Group photo of students and faculty
NMSU Discovery Scholars, faculty mentors and administration. Top row, from left: Daniel Chand, assistant professor of government; Oscar Robles, chemistry undergraduate; Kayla DeVogel, physics undergraduate; Nancy Chanover, associate professor of astronomy; Sean Pleyer Richins, languages and linguistics undergraduate; Garrett Bennet, psychology undergraduate; Jared Van Natta, anthropology undergraduate; Ivana Daniela Rodriquez, biology undergraduate; and Anne Hubbell, interim associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the NMSU Discovery Scholars program. Front/bottom row, from left: Christopher Molina, government undergraduate; Hridindu Roychowdhury, chemistry undergraduate; Erik Yukl, assistant professor of chemistry; and Tim Ketelaar, guest speaker and associate dean for the Honors College. (NMSU photo by Dana Beasley)

“The Discovery Scholars program affords our undergraduates with an exceptional opportunity that is rarely afforded to younger students,” said Michael Hout, assistant professor of psychology. “By encouraging our students to engage in active, semi-independent research, the program is really setting them up for success.”

Hout is faculty mentor to Garrett Bennett, an undergraduate psychology major and Discovery Scholar at NMSU. As a Discovery Scholar, Bennett was selected to conduct paid research alongside an NMSU faculty member.

“Seeing that somebody recognized something in me, in essence, made me recognize it in myself,” Bennett said. “That was a very humbling experience.”

Bennett and Hout are researching visual search scenarios; specifically, when the use of a search partner best benefits the speed and accuracy of performance, compared to that of a single searcher.

Bennett will present the results of his research at the Object Perception, Attention and Memory conference in Chicago this semester, with his travel expenses financed through the Discovery Scholars program.

This direct investment in students is one reason Anne Hubbell, interim associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences and director of the NMSU Discovery Scholars, asserts that this program is among the best she has ever been involved with.

“Some programs just throw money at a problem,” she said. “Others, like Discovery Scholars, invest in the future of our students and faculty.”

For Kayla DeVogel, a physics undergraduate, this meant revealing her future ambitions.

“I now know that I want to do research, particularly astronomy research,” DeVogel said. “Discovery Scholars has really allowed me to see what being a graduate student and a researcher is like, and allowed me to further my knowledge about astronomy and life in general.”

Alongside Nancy Chanover, associate professor of astronomy, DeVogel spent the summer analyzing images of Saturn to better understand what gives its clouds their distinct colors – a phenomenon that remains a mystery, despite hundreds of years of observations. Like Bennett, DeVogel will present her research at a national conference this fall.

Other undergraduates who spent their summer involved with the Discovery Scholars program include Hridindu Roychowdhury, Marquette Gass, Denali Wilson and Ismael Torres.

Each Discovery Scholar received $10 per hour, for up to 40 hours a week, to work on independent, but guided, summer research with their faculty mentor. For the fall semester, students receive the same pay for up to 20 hours a week. Students also receive a book fund of $200 each semester they participate, including the summer while faculty members receive $1,500 toward scholarship, creative activity or for conference travel.

This funding originates from a portion of the College of Arts and Sciences distance education revenue, as well as donations, to maintain and expand the program.

“Providing support for students to engage in undergraduate research is beneficial not only for the student’s professional growth but also for their personal development,” said Christa Slaton, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The Discovery Scholars program includes both research and community service so students learn discipline and ethical standards, which builds confidence. And that’s something they can use for the rest of their lives.”

With this support, Roychowdhury was able to quit his off-campus job to focus on his research with Erik Yukl, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Roychowdhury and Yukl are studying how bacteria acquire zinc to better understand how pathogenic bacteria colonize their hosts.

Gass, an undergraduate anthropology major, has also been able to strengthen her resume with the funding and opportunities made possible through Discovery Scholars.

“Without much in the way of financial resources, I really thought I would have to graduate at the end of the year with next to nothing to add to my CV,” she said. “The Discovery Scholars program saved me – I got the experience I wanted and needed, while getting paid.”

Over the summer, Gass worked with Mary Alice Scott, assistant professor of anthropology, on an ethnographic study of the culture of medicine in the Southern New Mexico Family Medicine Residency Program. She is now working on a project involving school gardens and food with M. Lois Stanford, associate professor of anthropology.

Like Gass, other scholars have engaged in community-oriented research through the program. Wilson, a recent graduate of the history department, spent her summer working with Peter Kopp, assistant professor and NMSU director of public history.

“I enhanced my research skills, learned to ask my own questions and began to piece together an image of agricultural progress, identity and community in Las Cruces at the turn of the century,” she said. “Dr. Kopp guided me when I had questions, but across the semester, he also helped me to be confident enough in myself to work with great independence.”

Alongside Neil Harvey, government professor and department head, Torres is helping to produce a “Regional Immigrant Rights and Services” manual to be distributed to families of mixed status in the community.

“As a member of an immigrant family, myself,” Torres said, “the opportunity to develop my skills in research, writing and networking, while giving back to the community I am a part of, has been the most rewarding part of my time at NMSU. Discovery Scholars is, hands down, one of the most uplifting and supporting programs NMSU has to offer.”

As a group, the Discovery Scholars also participate in community service events, with their summer volunteer work benefitting La Casa Inc., the local domestic violence shelter.

Since Discovery Scholars began in spring 2015, eight students have conducted a full semester of research through the program; five students are continuing from the summer, with seven new students and faculty mentors added to the program this fall.