How Does University Research Happen? It's Not All Lab Coats and Test Tubes

Jan 4, 2017

It’s not uncommon to see UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee named among the nation’s top research universities.

State schools regularly appear on industry-compiled lists. And just last year, UWM joined an elite group of “R1” institutions – schools recognized for their research output.

How do undergrads contribute to the research work their campuses are doing?

It’s not what you might expect – much like the site UWM freshman Kaylee Yelk has chosen as her research hub.

Yelk has a pretty important assignment. The research team she works with has been part of an international effort to discover gravitational waves.

But rather than a lab or classroom, Yelk works out of her dorm room, a single – barely the size of a closet. She’s surrounded by polaroids of her family and friends, and a mini-fridge stocked with leftover Christmas cookies.

“I pretty much just get in pajamas, pull up my laptop and get an hour [of research] in a day,” Yelk describes. “Everyone has this idea in their head of, like, lab coat and chemicals. And…I’m just chilling on my laptop.”

Different from the picture you might have in your head, right?

That scenario Yelk described - grad students, wrapped in white lab coats, pouring liquid samples from test tubes definitely happens. But research takes many different forms at Wisconsin’s top universities.

And it isn’t just relegated to the sciences. It happens in all kinds of fields.

“We have students who are working with dance faculty on creating the choreography for new dance performances,” lists Kyla Esguerra, deputy director of UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research. “We’ve had students help put together installations for exhibits. Things like that, where they’re working closely—kind of apprenticing with faculty.”

"It's nice to know I'm working on something, and working toward something"

While some students do research for credit and others get paid as part of a work-study arrangement, what Esguerra is describing - “apprenticing with faculty” – is one of the most important aspects of research.

It gives professors the “hands on deck” needed to complete their work and offers students hands-on experience, according to Nigel Rothfels. He's UWM’s director of undergraduate research.

“I’ll show you how I do what it is I do, and how I create and do my work,” Rothfels explains, “and in that process of apprenticeship, you learn the process, and become a collaborator and colleague.”

Students, especially undergrads, join research teams with relatively undeveloped skill sets. Faculty members train the students and give them small tasks at first, but after a few months of working on a project, students often don’t require as much oversight.

That’s one of the reasons Kaylee Yelk is able to work from her dorm.

She’s looking for pulsars, or stars that emit radiation, to further explore the bounds of gravity. Now, after almost six months of solo work, she’s practically a walking textbook of astronomy terms.

Yet, Yelk says being involved in research could mean she’s doing much more than studying and learning.

“It’s nice to know I’m working on something, and working toward something,” she says. “This is stuff that Einstein was theorizing and working on. It’s just cool to think I’m researching the same thing that Einstein was!”

And perhaps someday, breaking new ground.