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UBC Reports | Vol. 53 | No. 3 | Mar. 1, 2007

Undergrads Jump Disciplines in the Discovery Game

By Hilary Thomson

Parties, pizza, and late-night cramming may be common images of undergraduate life, but for some UBC undergrads, the picture also includes designing and conducting original research.

Close to 60 students from all disciplines are involved in UBC’s Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Program (MURP), which also includes participation in the Multidisciplinary Undergraduate Research Conference (MURC), to be held March 3.

“We want to make students’ research experience more cohesive,” says Ingrid Price, an instructor in the Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences whose vision led to both the program and the conference. “We also want to demystify the research process and enrich the academic experience of our undergrads.”

Developed in 2004, MURP is a non-credit program that involves students in research through directed studies, honours programs, co-op placements, volunteer work or research assistantships. Students must apply to the program, determine a topic area and find a supervisor or sponsor to oversee completion of the project. Supervisors may be faculty members, PhD candidates or professionals in the community.

In addition to time spent on the project itself, students spend about four to six hours per month participating in MURP workshops that include library research skills, study design and scholarly writing and presentation. In addition, there is an optional service learning component where students serve as mentors to high school students enrolled in the International Baccalaureate program at Vancouver’s Britannia Secondary School.

MURP and MURC are co-ordinated by Sonja Embree of the Office of the Vice-President, Research. MURC is open to all undergrads at UBC and participation is mandatory for MURP students.

“These students are energetic and committed. It’s exciting for them to be taken seriously as an investigator,” says Embree. “Besides building expertise and credentials, students also develop relationships with faculty that can continue into graduate work.”

Approximately 130 students -- MURP students and others -- will be presenting at MURC. There will be $100 prizes for the five top presentations in each of the oral and poster categories, as well as for the two top fine arts presentations. 

Goldis Chami, a fourth-year double major Arts and Science student, is examining coping behaviours among Rwandan genocide survivors. She had volunteered at a medical clinic in neighbouring Uganda in 2005 where she encountered Rwandan refugees.

“In just 100 days groups of Hutu militia killed between 800,000 and one million people,” says Chami of the genocide that erupted in 1994. “Yet there is very little information about the people who survived this genocide.”

Chami is reviewing testimonies gathered by a psychology grad student, who is studying other aspects of the genocide.  She is also reviewing personal accounts that form part of a memorial website established by non-governmental organizations that support genocide survivors.

Chami will also compare the coping behaviours of Rwandans with those of Holocaust survivors, an area of expertise for her supervisor, Psychology Prof. Peter Suedfeld. Behavioural comparisons will be made according to gender and age groups. 

“If we can figure out how coping can work for these people, we’ll be better able to help them, to offer interventions and support,” says Suedfeld.

The hard part of the research project was narrowing down the broad field of coping to a specific topic for the proposal, says Chami. Now “into the rhythm of research,” she says the next challenge will be writing the paper. She’s not sure if she wants to pursue a career in research, but would certainly consider another trip to East Africa.

Laura McMillan is a fourth-year Human Kinetics student who is exploring connections between the desire to appear perfect, confidence in athletic ability, satisfaction with body image and exercise dependence. She’s interested in cases where a strong desire for physical activity can lead to mental distress and physical injury.

She will use questionnaires to measure the variables among more than 200 female university students.

“We think that exercise dependence is more likely to be a consequence of these variables rather than simply a route to achieve physical perfection,” says McMillan, who has just received research ethics approval to start the project.

Fourth-year psychology major Pralle Kriengwatana is studying hormonal influences on song sparrows.

A veteran of two previous research projects, Kriengwatana is looking at effects of melatonin on territorial aggression and hormone levels in wild song sparrows.

Male song sparrows are territorially aggressive year-round. During their winter, or non-breeding, season aggression is regulated by the hormone estradiol. However, gonadal production of estradiol is low during this season.

So where does the aggression come from?

Kriengwatana hypothesizes that melatonin, a hormone whose production is inhibited by light and increased in darkness, is implicated in converting a steroid hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone into testosterone and then estradiol.

She implanted wild song sparrows with either melatonin or a control, observed their aggressive behaviour toward a decoy and also collected blood samples. In addition, she implanted captured song sparrows for a more detailed hormone analysis. Results of the study are pending.

Kriengwatana, who is planning a career in research, says she appreciates the opportunity to go into more depth on a topic.

“Also, the idea that this work could be contributing to scientific literature is very motivating and exciting. The best part, though, is that the process of research is never-ending; by answering questions posed in this project, I discover even more questions that are equally fascinating.”

Findings from the study will contribute to understanding about the neural basis underlying song sparrows’ aggressive behaviour as well as the brain’s ability to synthesize its own hormones. It may also have implications for the effect of melatonin -- an over-the-counter substance – in humans, says Kriengwatana’s supervisor, Asst. Prof. Kiran Soma.

For more information on the undergraduate research program visit www.murp.ubc.ca; for conference information visit www.research.ubc.ca/murc.

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Last reviewed 27-Feb-2007

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