Research Experience Shapes Undergrads - Podcast Transcript


Have you ever wondered who was doing the research that will impact your future? The research podcast lets you met those people, and learn how the University of Kentucky is exploring and strengthening our understanding of the world through research and discovery.   


Here's Alicia Gregory, director of Research Communications. 


Alicia: Today we’ll meet two undergraduates who share their stories of why they got involved in research.


The first is Courtney McKelphin. She’s starting her senior year this fall, majoring in chemical engineering. She has received the William C. Parker and UK Provost Scholarships. She is a peer tutor and vice president of the National Society of Black Engineers.


Courtney McKelphin: So, I actually did research in high school, my senior year of high school. So, when I came to UK, one of the reasons I picked UK, was because it's an R1 school, so, everyone has a lab. You can get into research easily. So, I got into a lab freshman year, first semester. So I did that all of freshman year. Stopped sophomore year, and then got into a new lab this year, junior year, starting in the summer. Been there for a year now. Love that lab.


I kind of have two mentors. I have the big, faculty mentor, Dr. Mark Rucker, and then I have my staff mentor, who I see every day in the lab, who's with me in the lab every day. That's Dr. Edwardo Santillan-Jimenez. They've both been so amazing, so supportive of everything I've done. I've learned a lot from, you know, basic research style things, to writing. My writing has grown exponentially, because we do a lot of writing. But, really, they've just taught me how to be professional in research and... and how to navigate through college and life after college, and... and things like that.  So, I've grown through my academics, obviously, because in research you learn a lot about school. But, you also learn about life, and how to be an adult, and things. Which is important, when you figure out college. So... it'd been good. 


Courtney McKelphin:  The lab overall does algae to fuels. My new project is kinetics of the upgrading. So, I put this continuous reactor together, and… so, I'm looking at model compounds flowing through a catalyst, and then collecting diesel from... from that. So, I'm looking at how the, you know, reaction rates and kinetics of that, are working together to figure out how to optimize the process overall. 


Biggest take away. Solving problems. So, building that reactor and every problem that's come from that is just... not to give up on things, because things fall apart, easily. And, that's the point of research. Is, you know, figuring out how to not fall apart when things fall apart. So perseverance, persistence, just solving through problems with literature studies and, you know, not having to ask somebody every time something doesn't go right... just figuring out on my own is... is really important to research. And, that's really what I've gotten from that. 


Courtney McKelphin: Research is amazing. It's been absolutely... I've... I've traveled so much in a semester alone. I've gone from Boston, to San Diego, to D.C., and so I've traveled a lot from... for research. But, I've learned, I've grown, and I have incredible mentors from it. It's just... there's nothing bad to come out of research. I can't say anything. There's a reason why, you know, coming from high school, why I've been in a lab ever since. And, it's... you... you grow so much as a person; your communication skills, you know. And, even your resume. Every... every part of your resume can have something integrated with research in it. And, I... I honestly think that's the reason why I have the internships I have, is because I have all these awards, and all these communications, publications, and such; is because research has done so much for me. And... and my growth as a student, as a future professional, as a future engineer... It's done so much.


So, I'm kind of all over the place. I started out, I'm going to get a Master's, I'm going to get a PhD. Now, I'm just like, maybe I'll go to law school, and do IP, be an IP attorney, or Patent Law. And, then the other side of me, just wants to be an engineer, just wants to be just out in the real world, and be a real adult. So, I'm... I'm really all over the place still. It'll all depend on how this summer goes with my internship with Colgate. I will be in their global supply chain internship program, so I'll probably be more project management style. So, not so much real engineering, but more understanding process and solving problems that way. Which is more what I want to do, if I were to be an engineer in industry. So... we'll see how that goes. It's in Bowling Green so... you know, not too far away from here. 


Courtney McKelphin: The best part about going to a big school, is there's a lot of hidden gems to it. So, like, my lab isn't actually on campus. It's at the Center for Applied Energy Research, which is off campus, but is still part of UK. And so, I think a lot of really great things come from being the biggest institution in the state, is there's a lot of connections, there's a lot of little things. If you want something, you can find it here. You just... you have to know where to ask, and who to ask, and... there's never really been anything that I couldn't find here. And, I think that's one of the best things about UK is, if you need it, you can find it somewhere.


Alicia: The next student is Ben Childress. He’s starting his junior year this fall, majoring in economics and political science. Ben is a Chellgren fellow, a Gaines fellow, and Senate President of the UK Student Government Association.


Ben Childress: I'm a sophomore, studying economics, and I think I'm either minoring in either poly-sci or philosophy. Not sure, totally, yet. 


I love the community at UK, especially going to a big college like UK. You hear, "Well, you won't know anybody. You'll just be another number." But that really hasn't been the case at all. For such a big university, I think, UK really brings this campus together. Students everywhere seem to know each other, and be interacting. Every time I walk to class, I feel like I say hi to like fifteen of my friends. I think, the community that UK has on this campus is special, and I don't think you see that at a lot of other schools. 


Ben Childress:  You hear a lot about "Well get involved in undergraduate research. It's one of those perks about being a big research university." And so, my last summer, I guess the summer of my freshman year, I applied for a grant to do some research and get paid, kind of in lieu of a summer job. I didn't get it, but that was kind of my first taste of trying to put together a proposal. And I had also applied to the Chellgren's program. And so, through that, they kind of hold you accountable, and get you started, and make sure that you're doing undergraduate research.


First semester, you look at kind of some things to make you more career ready, or get you in place to apply for scholarships for graduate school, or things like that. We worked on resumes, personal statements, reaching out to faculty; things like that. Second semester of sophomore year, you do a three-hour research credit, which you eventually present at the Research Showcase.  And, research can be in uh... on anything. 


Ben Childress: Dr. Toma works at the Martin School, and she's a genius. She's super smart. We're doing research and doing something academic, but it has very real-world applications that will affect people. She does a lot of stuff with education policy, which was kind of what our project was based around. And, so to see how, you know, we can look into these issues, and when you look at societal issues, like incarceration rates, or income, or poverty; all this stuff kind of revolves around education, and especially early education. And, so, we can look at these issues, and it has very real-world implications and can positively affect Kentucky. She has these big issues that she's trying to dive into about what's the best way to address the achievement gap in Eastern Kentucky. And, and to see her passion, and her energy; it's awesome to see. 


Charter schools are government-funded schools, but they operate outside of like a traditional school board. So, they can be operated from government agencies that are just adjunct to the school board, or they can be operated by a private for-profit or private non-for-profit agencies. And, I guess the big appeal for charter schools is that since parents don't have to pay for them, they're targeted more at trying to help the achievement gap, or are targeted more towards lower income students.


Ben Childress:  But there's a lot of debate out there, and charter schools are relatively new. There's a lot of debate on the effectiveness, like do they actually do what they say they're going to do. The point of this project was to kind of step back a little bit, and step away from that debate, and look at, for Kentucky.... Kentucky is a state that does not have charter schools. 42 states have charter legislation that allows charter schools. And there was a bill going through the general assembly this session, and it died there. But Governor Bevin has said, multiple times, that he wants charter schools in Kentucky. 


So, we wanted to look at if charter schools were in Kentucky, where would they locate, and how many will locate in those areas. Just to step back from the rhetoric a little bit, and look at what the data is saying. And, if this kind of matches up with what state legislators are saying charter schools will do.


Ben Childress:  Tennessee is a state that does have charter schools, and so, using data from Tennessee created a predictive model that uses income and population size of counties, and then predicts 1) if charters will locate in a certain county, what's the probability, and 2) how many will locate there after 12 years. Because we have 12 years of data from Tennessee.  Applying that to Kentucky, it looks like what we would probably expect given national trends, that you have about a 100% probability to see them in Louisville, maybe about 50-ish percent to see them in Lexington, and then, a small percentage in Kenton County. And, you can see that golden triangle; Louisville, Lexington, Northern Kentucky, right outside of Cincinnati.


And so, I thought it was really interesting to see that. That's where the data, and that's where national trends tell us charters are probably going to locate, if Kentucky does have legislation. But when we look at the issues of education in Kentucky, and we look at Eastern Kentucky, and Western Kentucky, and everywhere; it doesn't look like charter schools are an appropriate measure to effectively address these issues that we're seeing.  So, that... that's kind of a short summary of the project. 


Ben Childress:  I think, going into it, there's this kind of scary barrier of like, "Oh, I have no idea how to do that." Very little have I ever worked with any kind of regression analysis, data analysis, kind of having to create a data set, and... and analyze it and create a model. But it's really not that crazy difficult.  Sure, it takes work, and practice, and experience; but it's not necessarily rocket science, and with dedication, it's something that I think is totally accessible to any student with an interest in it.


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