When molecular genetics and microbiology professor Scott Stevens arrived at UT in 2002, he realized right away he had a problem.
The problem arrived in the form of eager junior and senior students—scads of them—knocking on Stevens’ office door, begging to work in his lab. He struggled to give them meaningful research experiences in only one or two years. “It takes a year just to train them in the basics: how to use the equipment, how not to blow up the lab,” Stevens says. “Then they would graduate without having had time to really do meaningful science.” So the professor began planning a way to get students involved in research earlier, in their freshman and sophomore years. He also wanted them to do real research right away, not just rote exercises from a book.
Almost a decade later, Stevens’ idea has snowballed into a powerful, wildly successful research and mentoring program: the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI), now directed by assistant dean for honors Sarah Simmons. Stevens, Simmons, and colleagues wanted to boost the number of students doing research, but they needed a new model to make that happen. In the traditional model, a science professor mentors just a few undergraduates in his or her lab. They don’t have time to take on more. But the FRI, thanks to a hefty grant, is able to hire PhD-level scientists who work full-time for the program, each supervising 30 students.
Now nearly 500 freshmen, 40 percent of whom are from underrepresented groups, join the program each year, and the payoffs are huge.
Students who participate in the FRI are 30-35 percent more likely to graduate with a science degree and 23 percent more likely to go to graduate school. What’s more, the program is significantly boosting the number of Hispanic students majoring in science, and 94 students have become authors of publishable research papers. See the data below.
FRI students (as shown by the blue line below) are much less likely to drop out of the College of Natural Sciences than are other students (red line). 74.7 percent of FRI students are still majoring in science by their junior year, versus 55.3 percent of other students who first declared a science major.
Hispanic students—an underrepresented group within UT as a whole and especially within the College of Natural Sciences—are much less likely to drop out of science majors if they participate in the FRI. Here, the orange line shows that 68.9 percent of Hispanic FRI students (orange line) stick with a science major, while just 45 percent of all other Hispanic students (green line) do.
FRI students are 23 percent more likely to go to graduate school than their peers. This pie chart shows that 25 percent of FRI students enter PhD programs (orange slice) or MD/Phd or MPH programs (yellow slice).
Data and photo provided by the College of Natural Sciences