The Cary REU program in Translational Ecology engages students in activities in three interwoven strands that, when experienced together, provide a strong foundation for pursuing excellence in ecology:
A brief description of the activities in each strand follows.
Under the guidance of one or two scientific mentors, each Cary REU student performs an independent research project of her or his own design. From discussions with other REU Site Directors it is clear that the independence we give our students in formulating their own research questions is unusual among REU programs in biology. Students do not work in a vacuum, but rather receive a great deal of support and guidance from their mentors and other scientists, post docs, graduate students and research staff. The length of our program (12 weeks versus the more typical 10), our philosophical convictions concerning teamwork and mentor-student relationships, and the proven success we've had in the past all support this approach.
Once students delineate a research question and associated hypotheses, they select appropriate methods and develop a research plan that is presented informally to fellow students and mentors at the end of the second week to receive constructive feedback. A written proposal is completed by the end of the third week that is reviewed by their mentor(s) and a non-mentor scientist. Students implement and complete the project on their own, ending with analysis and report writing.
Students write abstracts and give a 15 minute presentation in a formal Undergraduate Research Symposium at the end of the final week, attended by staff, students and scientists from the surrounding community (typically 50 in attendance). Students complete a draft of their research papers that is finalized after mentors' feedback. Students will have the option to submit their paper to the online Cary REU Program scientific publications edited by the Project Directors. This publication not only gives our students experience in seeing their work carried to completion, but also is useful in promotion and recruitment. Many students present their research at local or national conferences, and some go on to submit their work for peer reviewed publication.
Hallmarks of the Cary REU program are emphases on reflective practice and collaborative science. We try to foster critical reflection about science and its linkages to society in every facet of the program. Starting on the first day, students are given notebooks and guided in reflective journaling that is revisited frequently at the beginning or end of many of the summer’s sessions. Specific activities within this strand include:
We offer hand-on, interactive sessions or online training in: a) asking good questions and formulating hypotheses in ecology; b) linking research with ecological theory; c) ethics and ecology; d) safety in ecological research; ; e) responsible conduct of research; and f) future pathways to graduate school and jobs.
While skills in data visualization, interpretation and analysis are critically important to the generation and communication of scientific knowledge, many undergraduate students arrive with few of these skills. The R platform is a rigorously vetted freeware program that has been experiencing an increased popularity among data experts in academia and corporations. Its interface encourages students to develop confidence in writing code to manipulate, visualize and analyze their data. This workshop has multiple sessions throughout the summer and supports students in building proficiency in statistics for study design, data visualization and interpretation, data analysis, and data documentation and archiving.
To support students in developing effective writing skills, we offer a multi-session workshop focused on research proposals and scientific papers, culminating in intensive work on their final papers toward the end of the program. Students have several opportunities for peer review coupled with post review reflection on their own writing, along with individual consultation with the workshop leader.
Translational ecology is a theme that runs across the research and reflective practice/training strands of the Cary REU program. To complement and expand on the independent research experience, the Cary REU program includes four short activities that address the key dimensions of translational science.
Writing or speaking about research for a lay audience can be rewarding. It helps identify the most important and interesting ideas and findings, clarifies your understanding and satisfies your interests in connecting with people in the larger community. Students participate in a Communications Workshop where they learn about insights from practitioners and communications researchers and then engage in an exciting Elevator Pitch “Speed Dating” activity. This activity is coupled with an assignment to write a lay-accessible summary of their research in their research proposal, which will be revised, with feedback from a peer and mentor, for the Undergraduate Research Symposium program booklet.
The Sharing Science program, where Cary-REU students spend 4 hours in the field doing near-peer teaching with youth from a nearby urban area, has been one of the most highly rated parts of our program in recent years. A brief training session with Institute educators, and support while they teach, ensure a positive experience. To build on their experiences as teachers, students participate in an Education Roundtable where they collectively generate ideas about effective teaching, and then are challenged to consider ways they could measure or document student learning to improve their teaching and get a glimpse of the possibilities and promise of education research.
Students explore the interface between ecology and society in a case study of a current local issue such as tick-borne diseases in the Hudson Valley. Students develop a conceptual visualization of the complex, two-way interactions between science and policy and management, share their concept maps with each other and with Cary scientists and identify questions to address with stakeholders in a roundtable discussion of the issue. The group discusses common themes in a debriefing session, and then each student produces an 8 ½ x 11 poster of their synthesized ideas about how ecology is connected to and influenced by the social, political, economic and policy dimensions of the issue.
The full-day Forum on Translational Ecology fosters integration across the 3 strands of the program. Professionals from diverse careers related to ecology (8 in all, including an environmental lawyer, writer, high school teacher, government scientist, activist, NGO scientist, professor, etc.) spend the day with students from the Cary REU and other nearby REU programs. They give short presentations about what it's like to do their job, their advice for students interested in such a career, and how they translate ecology in their work. After informal conversations over lunch, small groups of students meet with panels of the visitors for more personal and in-depth exploration of the career and translational ecology themes of the day.
A short discussion is held towards the end of the summer program where students share their reflections on the Translational Ecology (TE) theme, identify ways they will try to pursue TE in their future endeavors and make suggestions for strengthening the theme in future Cary REU programs.