Through undergraduate research opportunities, Bryant students apply the knowledge they've gained from their coursework, hone their talents and build valuable experience that prepares them for their future careers. Mentored by members of the university's dedicated faculty, they take their first steps into a larger world and begin to make their mark on their field.
Bryant’s Center for Health and Behavior Sciences (CHBS) grants faculty and student fellowships to support and fund a wide range of research in areas from Biology to Data Science. These opportunities help to expand the boundaries of our knowledge and give students invaluable experience.
“Through their research, students gain important skills that help them deal with problems in the real world, including analytical skills, critical thinking and being able to look at all the aspects of a problem through an interdisciplinary lens,” notes Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., CHBS Director and Professor and Chair of the Department of Science and Technology.
"At the start it can be overwhelming, and they might think ‘I can never do that.' But by the end of their time working on a research project, you can see how they’ve transitioned from being hesitant and not sure of themselves to being able to confidently present the work they’ve done at a research symposium.”
Skills and confidence
“I want to do research after I graduate so this was a great experience,” says CHBS Student Fellow Logan O'Donnell ’22, who worked on a team researching the regulatory interactions that mediate changes in gene expression under the leadership of Assistant Professor of Science and Technology and CHBS Faculty Fellow Steven Weicksel, Ph.D. Her time in the lab introduced her to equipment and procedures that will give her an advantage in the future and a foundation for future discovery. “Now I have the opportunity to say that I have worked in a lab. I’ve worked with other researchers so I know how to collaborate with others," she says. "I know how to solve problems and work past obstacles. All of those things will be applicable to my future research.”
It also taught her resilience, ingenuity and innovation as her team tried anew things and explored new areas. "One of the major takeaways for me was that research rarely goes perfectly on the first go-around, especially with something that's so new and innovative," says O'Donnell. "It was really important for me to learn how to evaluate the situation and troubleshoot—how to find what worked and what needed to be changed in order to progress further."
Her work also helped her see her field of study from a variety of angles. “My favorite part of the project was working with my team members," O'Donnell, a Biology: Pre-Health major who plans to attend medical school post-graduation, states. "We all came in with different backgrounds and strengths so it was good to be able to put all of the pieces together. My focus is more science-based, but we were also working with coders and programmers. I was able to listen to another side of a lot of experiments that I usually don't get have the same exposure too.”
Her mentor was an ideal guide as the student researchers gained a new understanding of their field. “Professor Weicksel was amazing,” says O’Donnell. “He made sure to take the time to ensure we understood every part of the process and why we were making the decisions we were making.”
Through the research experience they develop, students gain confidence in their skills and capabilities. “At the start it can be overwhelming, and they might think ‘I can never do that,’” says Hokeness. “But by the end of their time working on a research project, you can see how they’ve transitioned from being hesitant and not sure of themselves to being able to confidently present the work they’ve done at a research symposium.”
“We’ve developed a very open and honest line of communication and I really value that. It really feels like, in a lot of ways, we are partners in this research.”
“It was definitely very exciting to be working on a new area and adding to what we know,” says O’Donnell, who notes the research her team conducted could one day have applications in a wide range of areas in biology and biotechnology. Her excitement grew when she presented her work to professors, other students and professional researchers in her field at the 2021 Rhode Island Summer Undergraduate Research Conference. “They asked a lot of questions and there were a lot of people who came up to me afterward and told me, ‘Wow, I haven't ever seen someone do this specific research before,’” she says, noting her work has a variety of applications that could be used to help others.
“That so many people who have many more years of experience than I do were impressed with our work was definitely a significant moment for me,” O’Donnell adds.
A part of the world
Professor of Anthropology Alex Perullo, Ph.D., has partnered with the African Alliance of Rhode Island for more than 17 years, working with the state’s African communities to determine the social determinants of health that affect that population. This past summer, he was joined in his work by CHBS Student Fellow Valerie Hartnett ’22.
In addition to building important skills, research experience can also help expose students to a wider world, Perullo notes. “You’re no longer reading from a book or sitting in a lab,” he says. “You’re interacting with people living through the situations you’re learning about. It's more informative, allowing you to comprehend the joys and struggles of our humanity.”
“Being able to evaluate information as neutrally as possible–to be able to stand back and assess and understand–is vital whether you're running a non-profit, whether you're working in academia or whether you're running a business."
It can also help students learn more about themselves and discover new areas of interest. “I think my favorite part of the research has been the field work,” says Hartnett, an Applied Economics major . “I was sort of surprised how naturally it came to me.” Going out into the field, conducting interviews and immersing herself in other communities helped her develop an important new skillset. “I’ve done plenty of analytical research–pulling data and crunching numbers–but this is the first time I've really been able to do the field side of research,” she says.
Hartnett, the first female president of the Bryant Economic Student Association, also found new insight into her studies. “As an economist, the sociological side of the field is very important to me,” she says. “I'm very interested in how human behavior intersects with economic outcomes.”
She’s glad to have Perullo as a mentor. “We’ve developed a very open and honest line of communication and I really value that. It really feels like, in a lot of ways, we are partners in this research,” Hartnett says.
Seeing the world more clearly
Engaging in research, says Perullo, helps researchers see the world a little more clearly–even beyond their projects. “It teaches students the methods and skills needed to evaluate information and findings,” he states. “Removing biases and learning about the world from different perspectives helps students appreciate diverse views of the same situation.”
“Supporting and engaging in research like this shows that Bryant is connected to things that are much bigger than ourselves. We are connected to Providence. We're connected to Rhode Island, we're connected to New England and all these other regions. We are connected to the wider world.”
It’s important, says Hartnett, to learn how to share the real story, not the one you think you want to tell. “One of the biggest things you learn is how to think outside yourself and outside your own biases and predisposition,” she says. “While you’re conducting research, you need to make sure your subjects speak first and foremost. It's not my voice that everyone needs to hear–it's theirs.”
That clarity can be an important asset for students’ future careers. “Being able to evaluate information as neutrally as possible–to be able to stand back and assess and understand–is vital whether you're running a non-profit, whether you're working in academia or whether you're running a business,” Perullo notes.
Knowledge and responsibility
But there’s more to research than acquiring new knowledge and gaining new skills, says Perullo. It’s also about helping others and being part of a larger community. “Supporting and engaging in research like this shows that Bryant is connected to things that are much bigger than ourselves,” he notes. “We are connected to Providence. We're connected to Rhode Island, we're connected to New England and all these other regions. We are connected to the wider world.”
“I think everyone has an impact on the world, whether they realize it or not. So choosing how you make that impact, and what you want it to be is something people should consider.”
Through those connections, and hard work, researchers can find the information needed to make important, positive change in ways both large and small. “Sometimes students are under the impression that everything they do has to be immediately impactful–that it has to make a major change in life,” says Perullo. “But really, it's all of the little steps we can take to understand and learn that actually lead us to those bigger changes. It takes time and it's a process–so helping students learn that process is always important.”
For Hartnett, the work she’s doing is part of a larger calling. “I think everyone has an impact on the world, whether they realize it or not,” she says. “So choosing how you make that impact, and what you want it to be is something people should consider.”