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The Value of Undergraduate Research

Parker Stevenson in a labParker Stevenson does research in the lab of Keerthi Krishnan where she studies Rett Syndrome, a neurological and developmental genetic disorder that alters brain development. The syndrome causes a progressive loss of motor skills and speech, with seizures and often intellectual disability. Using video coding software, Parker studies the behaviors of mice with Rett Syndrome as they perform a pup-retrieval assay, a learned maternal behavior that can provide insight into their neural plasticity.

“My research experience within the Krishnan lab has been and continues to be such a highlight in my undergraduate career. Undergraduate research provides hands-on exposure to the sciences that you cannot get in the classroom, as well as experience with not only conducting research, but also presenting and perhaps even publishing it! I cannot recommend enough that students, especially in STEM, take the time to get involved in undergraduate research. It’s as simple as looking up what different professors are researching and if you’re interested in joining a lab, email that professor and ask to meet. The worst they can say is no, and UT is a very large university, so if a lab you’re interested in is full, there’s no shortage of other opportunities.”

“My most memorable experience thus far in Dr. Krishnan’s lab was participating in EUReCA in spring 2019. It was the first time presenting my research, and I am so glad it was in such a welcoming atmosphere with other UT students and faculty. I received two awards for my poster, and I plan to participate again in spring 2020.”

“UT provided financial support for my undergraduate research during the summer of 2019 through the UT Undergraduate Summer Research Internship. This financial support was crucial to my participation in lab during the summer – without it, I would’ve had to find another job and miss out on progressing my research.”

-Parker Stevenson


Kyle Freeman For more than a year, Kyle Freeman was an undergraduate in the Burch-Smith lab where he investigated the role of plant cell wall-modifying enzymes in intercellular trafficking. Molecules can travel between plant cells through small channels called plasmodesmata. The structure of plasmodesmata depends on the cell wall. Kyle studied the family of enzymes called xyloglucan endotransglucosylases/hydrolase. These enzymes can alter properties of the cell wall by cutting and re-joining structural polymers called xyloglucans. Kyle investigated whether those changes affect plasmodesmata. During last year’s EUReCA, Kyle received the Office of Research & Engagement Gold Award and Natural Sciences Award of Excellence for his poster presentation. In February, Kyle presented his research poster to legislators at the annual Tennessee Posters at the Capitol in Nashville.

 “Many laboratory techniques that I had read about in class I was able to perform for experiments. My time in the lab solidified concepts using real world examples. Dr. Burch-Smith and the graduate students were always willing to teach experimental procedures and help me understand why each step was important. I also had the opportunity to present my work at scientific conferences. Participation in these events gave me valuable practice in public speaking and scientific communication.”

“The most memorable experience I had during my time in lab was looking at samples of leaf tissue using the confocal microscope for the first time. It is one thing to see images in textbooks but seeing plant cells firsthand was amazing! Seeing real changes in the cells because of work I had done with the help of the Burch-Smith lab was also very rewarding.”

“I would recommend that all undergraduates in BCMB seek a position in a lab. I learned so much about biology and application of the scientific method from my experience. Applying knowledge from multiple courses to research questions in the lab helps put what students learn in class into perspective. Speaking with the professors and graduate students can be very beneficial for students who are still looking for what career path or graduate degrees they wish to pursue after undergrad. My biggest regret with undergraduate research is that I did not begin sooner. A lot of students feel that they will not be able to contribute to the work in a lab because they have too little knowledge or experience. But the professors and graduate students are more than willing to assist undergraduates with their work. I believe that undergraduate students, with instruction, can perform a lot in the lab. The earlier students begin, the more they will be able to accomplish.”

-Kyle Freeman

Want to share highlights from your undergraduate experience in a BCMB lab? Send us an e-mail at eshpak@utk.edu.