Santa Clara University

Students as Research Partners

One of the many benefits of a Santa Clara education is the small size of most classes. Students have more opportunities to interact with and get to know their professors. For many students, this interaction goes beyond the classroom to include research.


SCU’s Faculty-Student Research Assistant Program (fsrap) matches students who are eligible for a federally funded work-study program with faculty who are doing research and are interested in serving as mentors to students.


“One of the most exciting parts of the program is that it focuses on a group of SCU students who are typically most in need of support of all sorts; those who are eligible for work-study funding are students from low-income families,” explains Diane Jonte-Pace, professor of religious studies and associate vice provost for faculty development.


Begun two years ago, the program uses various University resources, including the Orradre Library and Information Technology, both of which offer skills training; the Career Center, which helps identify the students; Financial Aid, which answers student eligibility questions; and the Faculty Development Office, which meets with faculty to discuss mentoring strategies. The student research assistants receive 60 percent of their salaries from the federal work-study program.


Evolution of a career


Recent SCU graduate Chandra Campbell says her sophomore semester in Religious Studies Professor J. David Pleins’ class, Science vs. the Bible: The Genesis Debates, “synthesized my scientific interest about these hot topic issues.”


At the end of the quarter, Pleins asked Campbell—a combined sciences major—if she would be interested in helping him research a book he is writing on Charles Darwin’s perspectives on the relationship between religion and science. After a semester studying abroad, Campbell began her research with Pleins in her junior year as part of the Faculty-Student Research Assistant Program.


Chandra Campbell, J. David Pleins
Chandra Campbell, J. David Pleins
“We met weekly and e-mailed often,” she says, explaining that her main task was to pour through 13 volumes of Darwin’s correspondence to sort out items that related to religion and his views on evolution. “At first I wondered how I would be able to figure out what was important in Darwin’s letters, but Professor Pleins helped me. As time went on, I didn’t need as much guidance.”


Campbell developed a mini-book of citations from Darwin’s writing for Pleins to review.


“We worked really well together,” Campbell says of her time with the professor. “I think he’ll write an interesting book. The way he’s approaching Darwin’s life hasn’t been covered yet.”


Campbell said her previous coursework had taught her about Darwin the researcher, but she knew little about Darwin the man until reading his letters and other writings.


“I thought it would be good to do research before medical school,” which Campbell says she plans to attend next year. Her goal is to become a preventive medicine/public health physician. “I also wanted a job that was mentally stimulating. I was reading Darwin’s words and working in uncharted research territory. I was glad to help contribute to knowledge in the world that hasn’t been written about yet. It was a unique opportunity that I couldn’t have had at a large university.”


Lab work nets results


The research assistant program gave biology major Gabriel Ozorowski the opportunity to research DNA with Ángel Islas, assistant professor of biology.


“We primarily study DNA polymerases, enzymes involved in synthesizing DNA during replication,” Ozorowski says. “Although the replication aspect of these enzymes is well known, it has been shown that some may also be involved in repairing damaged DNA. We specifically study whether the different types of human DNA polymerases have the ability to repair double-strand breaks.”


Gabriel Ozorowski, Angel Islas
Gabriel Ozorowski, Angel Islas
Ozorowski says working with Islas has greatly enhanced his understanding of biochemical laboratory techniques. “The hands-on experience allows me to better understand the theory gained from lectures and textbooks,” he says, adding that this research could have a great impact on society. “A better understanding of these mechanisms can shine some new light into understanding cancerous cells, which generally have faulty or no repair mechanisms,” he explains.


Ozorowski says he plans to attend graduate school, pursue a Ph.D., and then work in the biotech industry. “My experience here has definitely affected my career choices,” he says. “Before, I was thinking of medical or pharmacy school. However, I realized that I enjoy the laboratory work more.

Without such an experience at Santa Clara, I don’t know if I would have considered such a future.”


A partner in research


As a research assistant, second-year counseling psychology graduate student Brandi-Ann Tanaka says she has learned more than just research techniques from Elsa Chen, assistant professor of political science.


Elsa Chen, Brandi-Ann Tanaka
Elsa Chen, Brandi-Ann Tanaka
“Professor Chen lets me try a variety of things; it’s never boring,” says Tanaka, who was an English major and ethnic studies minor at the University of Oregon. “She treats me like an equal. The [fsrap] program makes you feel a part of something important because the professor trusts you to do research for them. Compared to other jobs, it really challenges a student’s mind.”


Tanaka has helped update a database of criminal justice statistics for use in Chen’s research on California’s Three Strikes law and other criminal sentencing policies. Tanaka also helped Chen with a research project on the use of e-mail for political communication between public officials and the public.


“Brandi has helped me review books on the issue, enter and re-code survey results, communicate with council members, compile data from those communications, and analyze local political Web pages,” Chen says. “I am able to trust her with tasks that are complex and time-sensitive.”


Tanaka says she appreciates that level of trust, as well as the chance to learn how to perform research. “Understanding what it takes to do research is important,” she says. “I understand a lot more now that I’m doing the research instead of just reading about it. Professor Chen and I go over the work I have for the week and she tells me how she handles her work week. I learn a lot from her experiences. It’s neat to have that kind of relationship with a professor.”


Chen says she has developed both a friendship and a close mentoring relationship with Tanaka. “I have advised her on interactions with her other professors, and she has learned, sometimes through observation, about juggling multiple demands of teaching, research, other work, family, and personal needs,” Chen says. “She has learned about the pluses and minuses of a career in research.”


Career choices


Kathleen Fitzsimmons, a junior majoring in psychology, has been working as a research assistant for MatthewBell, an assistant professor of psychology, for nearly a year-and-a-half. “One of our main research interests is choice behavior—why do we make the choices that we do? To investigate the basic variables behind choice, we’re conducting studies using pigeons as our subjects,” Fitzsimmons explains.


Kathleen Fitzsimmons, Matthew Bell
Kathleen Fitzsimmons, Matthew Bell
“I feel that my work with Dr. Bell has immensely enhanced my educational experience by giving me hands-on experience in data analysis, experimental design, and writing for psychological journals,” Fitzsimmons says. “Being able to do research as an undergrad with professors at SCU is the number one reason why I’m glad I came to SCU. I really don’t think I would be involved in the level of research that I am if I had gone to a different school,” she says, adding that research is “a great learning experience, and another way to get involved with the material you are studying.”


After graduation, Fitzsimmons says she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology since her work with Bell has given her a great appreciation for “the research side of psychology.”


“Originally, I only wanted to have a private practice,” she says. “But now I can see myself having both a practice as well as teaching at a university.”