When we speak of research, it is easy to focus on the phenomenal work being done by faculty at universities across Idaho — the research projects that grab headlines and attract funding, such as Boise State’s recent partnership with Idaho State University to develop a cloud-enabled sensor system that can detect early rot in potato storage facilities, potentially saving millions in both crop losses and revenue.
What is often overlooked in these conversations is the important contributions of graduate students, the bright minds that provide vital support to research being conducted on our campuses around the state. Through their efforts, these students are simultaneously learning and growing into the next generation of professionals, training to tackle many national and global issues. Oftentimes, their ideas become the true basis for creative solutions to the complex problems and intellectual property that drive university research and industry changes.
Tammi Vacha-Haase, dean of the Boise State Graduate College, describes graduate students as “the research engine of the university,” ready to collaborate with faculty and disseminate research by presenting at conferences and serving as authors on publications.
While faculty have the experience and knowledge, as Vacha-Haase explained, it is the graduate students who are asking thought-provoking questions, working as part of a team and aiding in the day-to-day tasks that propel research forward. She compares the learning environment in a research setting versus a traditional classroom to the act of teaching a class versus simply being in a class — involvement in research demands applied learning, constant participation and sharply honed critical thinking skills.
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In addition, being a part of a research team helps graduate students build skills that are highly sought after in the real world — skills such as problem solving, the ability to work unsupervised, teamwork, leadership, good communication and a strong sense of responsibility.
Jerry McMurtry, dean of the University of Idaho’s College of Graduate Studies, agreed that graduate students often bring new and fresh perspectives to research projects, which can inform research protocols or provide new directions in answering questions. Graduate students also work as collaborators alongside faculty as active partners in designing, conducting and disseminating research. This simple but powerful act of treating student researchers as intellectual peers is key to a successful graduate student experience.
McMurtry noted that part of the responsibility of training new graduate students is to develop scholars with the practical experience to tackle real world problems — not only to help advance their future careers, but to aid in the educational transformation from students into scientists of the world.
Graduate student research comes in many disciplines and forms — from intensive lab work to equally intensive field work. Here in Idaho, examples include graduate students at The College of Idaho who are researching how to use the cardiovascular system of underwater fleas to explore the effects of prescription drugs on vertebrates; graduate students at the University of Idaho who are measuring the heat radiating from the supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park and tracking the migration patterns of catfish in the Amazon River; and graduate students at BSU who are helping monitor Antarctic ice melt using earthquake monitoring technology, tracking leopard populations in Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park and studying the effects of moonlight on predator-prey interactions in rice fields in Madagascar.
At Boise State, we are busy cultivating our graduate student population — we saw a nearly 23 percent jump in graduate student enrollment in 2016 alone in our 11 doctoral programs and 75 master’s programs. Our graduate students continue to receive awards both regionally and nationally, present at conferences and serve as co-authors on publications — on top of the important work they do in the classroom, in the field and in the lab.
These students come from Idaho, the U.S. and all reaches of the globe. As educators and partners in research, we strive to send them into the world ready to engage and collaborate, armed with the research tools necessary to seek answers to the pressing questions society faces. They continue to be our best ambassadors, as they rapidly rise into leadership positions and their work continues to change the world.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly.