With roughly 1,000 undergraduate majors and 30 research faculty, it can be a challenge for Biology students to find a research position with one of the department’s laboratories. But a new website developed over the past year and introduced this semester is making it simpler than ever before.
And much of the credit goes to Mike Selden, an undergraduate with associate professor Sheila Patek’s lab, who designed a new Drupal-based website over the summer. The site, which debuted at the beginning of the semester, is expected to help place up to 200 students in labs this year, not in only in the Biology Department, but in facilities in the Psychology, Veterinary and Animal Sciences and Environmental Conservation departments.
Patek started BURA two years ago to create a more open system for linking researchers and undergrads. Modeling the effort on a campuswide program at the University of California, Berkeley where she previously taught, Patek focused making research “more visible” to students.
“I wanted to help students see what’s available,” she said. “There were few formal mechanisms to get into labs.”
Often, she said, undergraduates were left to figure it out for themselves. Recalling her own student experience, Patek said, “It’s the most unbelievably stressful thing to get into a lab.”
With demand rising and testing the limits of the very basic web-based system implemented two years ago, Patek began searching for a more effective alternative. Drupal, an open source web content management software seemed to offer some solutions, but websites don’t build themselves.
Enter Selden, who took on the challenge of learning Drupal programming and developing the site. Assistant professor Steve Brewer, who oversees instructional technology for the Biology Department, provided some key help with some of the more complicated aspects of building the database, but Selden led the charge, said Patek.
“He really did it all to turn into what it is now,” she said. “He just learned so much and really took ownership of the project. … It’s been fantastic to watch him develop his skills while doing something more generally for UMass undergrads.”
The new site requires students and researchers to create user profiles. Once approved, researchers can list projects. Students can submit applications through the site. The site also shows how many applicants there are for each project, a list of frequently asked questions and some nuggets of advice from Selden and Patek on crafting a solid application.
Patek said the site’s been well received by other faculty, who praised the results at a recent departmental retreat. “It’s the most gratifying extracurricular project I’ve been involved with,” she said.
The longer term goal is to expand the site to serve the entire campus by matching undergraduates with all of the science and engineering research labs, said Patek.
Image: Mike Selden