By Cindy Murphy McMahon, ’74, Associate Director of Communications, Creighton University
Creighton University prides itself on the opportunities it offers undergraduate students to work side-by-side on research with faculty. Professors like to say that it’s in Creighton’s DNA.
The University’s environment – 4,000-plus undergraduates; nine colleges and schools, including four professional schools; committed faculty – presents a culture that fosters undergraduate research opportunities.
According to Juliane Strauss-Soukup, Ph.D., Associate Vice Provost for Research and Scholarship, “The ‘DNA’ that creates such a vibrant research culture is the combination of our passionate, committed faculty and outstanding, dedicated undergraduates who are motivated to do research.”
Creighton faculty view undergraduate research as essential for students to fully engage in a topic and learn about a specific field, but they also recognize that research teaches students skills beyond the mastery of disciplinary knowledge. Strauss-Soukup adds, “It sharpens their critical-thinking skills, their writing skills, and their communication skills, all of which will benefit students no matter their long-term goals.”
The hub for Creighton’s undergraduate research efforts is the Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, or CURAS, founded by Strauss-Soukup, who is also a Professor of Chemistry. She has served as Director of CURAS for the past eight years.
At least one-third of all Creighton undergraduate students participate in research before they graduate. In the College of Arts and Sciences, 54% of students are involved in research or scholarly projects. To place these percentages in context, a 2019 study by the National Survey on Student Engagement (NSSE) found that nationally, 33% of undergraduates plan to do research, but only 22% actually complete a research project before graduation.
Other bragging points:
Creighton has more than 200 tenure-track faculty members mentoring undergraduate research students
Among STEM faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Medicine, 85% mentor undergraduate research students
Creighton undergraduates make 400-plus presentations annually at professional conferences
Attending and presenting at local, regional and national meetings and conferences is an opportunity that undergraduate students seek with enthusiasm. “They get to attend meetings, meet experts in their field, and present alongside graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and faculty,” says Strauss-Soukup. “It’s a priceless opportunity.”
CURAS helps to fund student travel to ensure that students can have the experience of presenting their research on the national stage. Creighton students also have a significant track record of securing external travel awards to attend conferences, as well as presentation awards in recognition of their performances.
Though travel has been hindered by the pandemic, Strauss-Soukup says, “Our students have adapted and are continuing to share their research widely by taking advantage of virtual presentation opportunities, both on campus and beyond.”
The geographically dense nature of Creighton’s campus is another factor that fosters collaboration and interdisciplinary research projects. Strauss-Soukup explains, “There are dental faculty collaborating with chemists; law faculty collaborating with political scientists and sociologists; sustainability professors working with environmental science faculty…the list goes on and on. And undergraduates are involved in all of these projects.”
One example of a truly interdisciplinary team is the “Sandhills Group,” which involves collaboration among faculty in environmental science: Mary Ann Vinton, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology; Jay Leighter, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication Studies; and John O’Keefe, Ph.D., Professor of Theology. Their research is investigating the impact of, and adaptation to, environmental change in the North-Central High Plains region of Nebraska known as the Sandhills.
One of the students involved in the research is Caroline Adrian, a senior majoring in Environmental Science from Fort Collins, Colorado. Her project is called, “When Wells Rise: A Multidisciplinary Analysis of Extreme Weather Events in the Nebraska Sandhills.”
Adrian was part of the 2020 Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows Program, a fellowship coordinated annually by CURAS for 40 fellows each summer. She is also a recipient of the Ferlic Fellowship: a program, supported by Creighton donors Randolph Ferlic, BS’58, M.D.’61, and his wife, Teresa Kolars Ferlic, that helps foster the talents and curiosities of students at Creighton.
Adrian found giving presentations on her research especially rewarding. “It’s interesting how you can present your work while continuing your research, so that each progressive presentation will look a little different than the last,” she says. “I appreciate the learning and growth that comes from the cycle of preparation, presenting and researching.”
The protocols and changes brought about by the pandemic necessitated adaptations over the summer, but, according to Adrian, “Engaging in field research in the current circumstances challenged me to be flexible and open to approaching a question or problem in a new way. I’ve been surprised at how much we’ve been able to do with a bit of creative problem-solving.”
She plans on furthering her education with a Master’s in Education and then teaching at an elementary school. She says, “I love ecology and I love people, so I hope that I can be an advocate for both, wherever that takes me.”
To date, Creighton has awarded 201 Ferlic Fellowships to students who study in STEM fields. The postgraduate plans of that group are impressive: 33% have gone on to medical school, 16% to other health-related professional schools, and 30% to graduate school. The program’s undergraduate projects have allowed participating faculty to go on to obtain approximately $11.5 million of external grant funding.
The Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program isn’t limited to supporting research in the sciences. Student researchers in the social sciences and humanities have achieved great success as well. Recent former fellows in these fields have gone on to Ph.D. programs in history and psychology, Fulbright teaching awards, and top law schools, to name just a few outcomes.
While Creighton’s strength in undergraduate research is especially attractive to prospective students, research by graduate and professional students with faculty mentors in the University’s graduate and professional schools is ongoing and equally robust. A recent expansion of Creighton’s academic research enterprise involves a partnership with Arizona State University (ASU). Under the agreement, ASU students receive priority consideration for enrollment in three Creighton health sciences doctoral programs, while students enrolled at the Creighton University Health Sciences – Phoenix Campus (set to open later this year) will have additional research opportunities at ASU facilities.
Creighton’s President, Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, S.J., has described this as a “landmark partnership” – one that positions both universities for an “unprecedented and exciting future, full of promise and significance.”