R1 drives undergraduate research opportunities

When UMaine earned R1 Carnegie classification in 2022, the designation inspired a dramatic increase in undergraduate research experiences for UMaine students.

The R1 designation, bestowed by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, is the highest honor offered, reserved for institutions with very high research activity. When the University of Maine earned R1 status in 2022, the designation brought new focus to the work of faculty, researchers, and graduate students, and strengthened the financial magnitude of their grants. The R1 classification benefits student and faculty research and notably helps undergraduate students at UMaine engage in research and gain the tangible experiences they need to become leaders in their fields.

The funding level dedicated to undergraduate research is a meaningful measure of these engagements. Since 2017, undergraduate support from sponsored research projects rose by 118%, with almost half of that growth following the R1 designation in 2022. As UMaine attracts more and larger grants, additional support is available for undergraduate research opportunities.

These experiences initiate students’ journey from knowledge consumers to knowledge producers. UMaine students who participate in these experiences report a greater sense of belonging, higher morale and more confidence in their abilities.

Building on the momentum from UMaine’s R1 designation, the university has expanded numerous initiatives to foster learning driven by discovery for undergraduate students.

Center for Undergraduate Research

UMaine’s Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR) supports and funds faculty-mentored research, scholarship and creative activities for undergraduate students across all academic disciplines.

Its flagship event, the Student Symposium CUGR hosts every April, showcases the power of student innovation. More than 2,000 people typically attend and benefit from shared research and creative activities from hundreds of students at the University of Maine and the University of Maine at Machias.

Many of the projects featured at the Student Symposium were made possible, in part, by CUGR fellowships. These grants help undergraduate students advance their education through research.

Timber Mattson, a CUGR fellow and biochemistry major, is studying the effects of toxins, stress and diet on the powerhouse of cells, mitochondria, in the lab of Suzanne Angeli, assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology. According to Mattson, the faculty mentorship she receives is one of the most valuable aspects of the experience. “Working with Dr. Angeli has given me a chance to work independently while also having a mentor to rely on if I need guidance or have questions,” she said.

Emilie Casey, an earth science major who advances glaciology research through a CUGR fellowship, echoed Mattson’s comments that direct faculty mentorship is the highlight of joining research projects so early in her education.

“Dr. Doughty is an excellent teacher, my experience wouldn’t be the same without her. I am new to coding, but with her guidance and patience, I have really gotten a grasp on the concepts and I’m finding a lot of fun in it,” said Casey.

In the lab of Golden Undergraduate Coordinator and Lecturer Alice Doughty, Casey studies tropical glaciers present during the Last Glacial Maximum, about 25,000 years ago. “Using moraine and elevation data collected from the Rwenzori mountains in Uganda, I create visual models to recreate the ancient glaciers. From there, I can extract pertinent information relating to mass balance and freeze levels, which is the elevation at which glaciers start to either freeze or melt,” Casey said.

National Science Foundation EPSCoR

Researchers at UMaine have a proven record of securing external federal funding, such as funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), to support undergraduate research fellowships. The NSF EPSCoR Research Infrastructure Improvement (RII) Track-1 Maine-eDNA grant was awarded in 2019 to UMaine through NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). 

The five-year Maine-eDNA Initiative aims to transform the understanding and sustainability of Maine’s coastal ecosystems via environmental DNA innovations that unlock new scales of inference and collaboration. The $20 million grant has been a boon for aspiring undergraduate researchers as well. In the 2022 fiscal year, Maine-eDNA provided direct support to 32 undergraduate researchers at UMaine as well as to undergraduates at other institutions in Maine. 

Experiential Programs Innovation Central

Integrated, high-impact experiential learning offered through UMaine’s Experiential Programs Innovation Central (EPIC) exposes students to research, interdisciplinary experiences, new technologies, innovation, design and prototyping.

EPIC developed new certificates and courses that foster problem-solving skills and cultivate awareness of resources and the pursuit of research among undergraduate students.

“I wanted to continue the project I started in the EPIC course to make it a reality,” said Noah Lambert, a computer engineering student at UMaine. “Applying what I learned, and with the help of all the wonderful people I had made contact with, I was able to apply for and receive fellowship funding for my project through the Center for Undergraduate Research this past year, and present my findings at the UMaine Student Symposium in 2022.”

Through EPIC, students from arts, humanities, engineering, sciences, education and business learn to work on multi-disciplinary projects, develop soft skills and complete required trainings in ethics and responsible conduct of research.

The office of the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School established EPIC in close collaboration with the Center for Undergraduate Research and several other centers and institutes at UMaine. Other UMS campuses have adopted the EPIC model and the program is beginning to earn recognition at the national level.

Research Learning Experiences

Research Learning Experiences (RLEs) introduce UMaine’s first- and second-year students to research early in their academic careers. These unique courses begin with a weeklong immersive experience for incoming, new students, followed by a semester-long course where students actively advance the research process. The program is open to students regardless of their major, allowing exploration of research outside of their declared disciplines. When RLEs were first introduced at UMaine in fall 2021, 242 students enrolled. Two years later that number has more than doubled to 590 students.

“RLE courses are designed with open-ended inquiry in small cohorts. They help first-year students wrestle with questions that have no known answers and come up with strategies for uncertainty and setbacks,” explained Brian Olsen, director of the RLE program and a UMaine professor of ornithology. “By the end of their first semester, RLE students at UMaine report higher morale, a greater sense of belonging at UMaine, and greater confidence with self-reflection and thinking of themselves as researchers.”

Through RLEs, students engage with research that seeks to solve pressing issues. In its first year, students in an RLE course tested if environmental DNA (eDNA), which is genetic material shed by organisms into their environment, was an effective tool for detecting eels in Maine rivers. American eel populations have declined nationwide and in Maine due to overfishing, infrastructure and climate change. The lack of research on the species has left experts with limited understanding of the location and population of eels in Maine’s rivers. The RLE’s eleven students helped design the research process, with particular attention to how this research helps inform stakeholders like the Maine Department of Marine Resources. Through the course, they gained hands-on experience in the field, endured cold mornings sampling water in the Penobscot River and sought eel DNA in their samples. This RLE also provided incoming students with hands-on experience in identifying potential shortcomings in a project’s design, building a research process and then conducting that research.