Dr. Magaly Rincon-Zachary, Midwestern State University biology professor, has been named Director of Undergraduate Student Research at MSU, a new position designed to oversee undergraduate student research opportunities in a plan to enrich students’ learning experiences.
Rincon-Zachary has overseen the summer student research program UGROW (Undergraduate Research Opportunity Workshop) since its beginning. The first UGROW was held in 2005 with four students and four faculty members from the College of Science and Mathematics participating. Last summer, 18 students were chosen to participate out of 45 applicants from several colleges, with more than 25 faculty members involved.
MSU Provost Betty Stewart knows firsthand how valuable the research experience can be for undergraduates. “It changed the focus of my career,” she said. “We needed to make those opportunities possible for undergraduates and we needed an educator who has a heart and mind to lead this endeavor. Dr. Rincon-Zachary is a researcher and will make research an experience that will enrich students’ education. Research is a passion for her.”
The creation of the position and appointment of Rincon-Zachary is key to the university’s reaffirmation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). MSU officials were required to select a focus for a Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) – something that will add value to the students’ educational experience. In preliminary committee meetings, a student forum was recommended as the topic. Rincon-Zachary said that the plan would fuse the student forum with undergraduate research, with the forum as a symposium to present research results each spring and fall. SACS officials will visit MSU in April for review. The plan will move forward as soon as SACS officials approve the QEP.
Using UGROW as a model, during long semesters two students from each of the six colleges will be chosen to participate in EURECA (Enhancing Undergraduate Research Endeavors and Creative Activities), with mentors from the colleges suggesting topics. The mentors will look for collaboration opportunities and ways to expand the topics. Progress and pitfalls will be discussed at regular meetings with interdisciplinary cooperation encouraged. Rincon-Zachary will facilitate the work between the colleges. The Department of Theatre’s fall 2011 original play Bandersnatch is an example of the interdisciplinary collaboration that Rincon-Zachary will encourage. Theater students collaborated with McCoy School of Engineering students to create large robotic puppets for the award-winning production.
Vice President for Administration and Institutional Effectiveness Robert Clark said that research has been ongoing in “pockets” since the early 1970s, but only in certain divisions. “We’ve never had a real sustained effort,” Clark said. “Magaly took UGROW and ran with it. When we looked for someone who was a leader, she was a top choice. She has made enormous strides with undergraduate research and over the years, involved other faculty, mainly from her college, and then decided to expand this.”
Stewart and Clark agreed that involving undergraduates in research opportunities benefits faculty as well as students. “We all reap the rewards when these students succeed,” Clark said. “It’s a win-win not only when students are involved but also when faculty is involved.”
“Working collaboratively with faculty campus-wide will enhance the student’s educational experience,” Stewart said. “Giving them the opportunity for research will add value to their education, and will keep us competitive with other COPLAC (Council of Public Liberal Arts Colleges) and liberal arts schools. We’re definitely doing the right thing.”
“Undergraduate Research as a COPLAC Distinctive” was the theme at the COPLAC Annual Conference last year. Rincon-Zachary, McCoy School of Engineering Professor Dr. Dale McDonald, and former Assistant Professor of Theater Brandon Smith presented about the cooperation between the engineering and theater departments to produce Bandersnatch. Four students also attended the conference. MSU is the only institution in Texas to be a COPLAC member.
Rincon-Zachary will oversee UGROW during the summer, the long semester EURECA program, and any other undergraduate research opportunities such as COPLAC’s Distance-Mentored Undergraduate Research, which pairs students with mentors from other universities.
Rincon-Zachary has been at MSU since 1992. She will divide her time equally between teaching and directing the research effort. She is excited about the possibilities for growth that student research can bring to the university. “UGROW has been a transformative experience for the students, and that’s just one month. Just think what a semester will do,” she said. “There is a notion that research is for Tier I schools, that small universities cannot produce research. That’s not true. I think 10-20 years from now MSU will be a destination, with students coming here for research and to be around a research atmosphere.”