When Lauren Eagon came to the University of Missouri to study natural resource science and management, one of her goals was to complete her own research project.
With the help of faculty mentors in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR), Eagon, who is now a senior, has been an active participant in undergraduate research throughout her collegiate career. She has gained hands-on experience through various research projects, where she has partnered with CAFNR faculty, staff and graduate students. She has also accomplished her goal and conducted her own research.
“Providing undergraduates with such a valuable opportunity is so important in education,” Eagon said. “MU, and specifically CAFNR, are so good at offering hands-on opportunities to students, but research experiences are so much more than that. Working closely with my professor while gaining so much independence was something that I could not have done in a typical classroom or course setting.
“Additionally, this opportunity prepared me for my future in a new way that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. For me, this is one of the most important experiences I have had in my college career.”
Undergraduate research has always been an important part of the CAFNR experience. When CAFNR unveiled its strategic plan in 2019, research was included along with three other signature experiences to make up the RISE Initiative – Research, International, Service learning, Experiential learning. All CAFNR undergraduates will take part in at least one of those experiences during their time on campus.
RISE is part of the Ensuring Student Success strategic priority in the CAFNR Strategic Plan.
“Undergraduates participating in research are part of the frontline discovery group, and their work is vital for the research success at the University of Missouri,” said Charlotte Phillips, professor in the Department of Biochemistry. “We’re working on important questions that haven’t been answered before, and they play an important role in that process.”
Phillips has worked with undergraduate students in her laboratory since she joined CAFNR. Those students generally stay in her lab for two to three years – sometimes even finding themselves working with her for all four years of their undergraduate studies. Phillips earned the William T. Kemper Fellowship for Teaching Excellence in 2004 and was awarded the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award in 2009.“Providing undergraduates with such a valuable opportunity is so important in education. MU, and specifically CAFNR, are so good at offering hands-on opportunities to students, but research experiences are so much more than that. Working closely with my professor while gaining so much independence was something that I could not have done in a typical classroom or course setting. Additionally, this opportunity prepared me for my future in a new way that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. For me, this is one of the most important experiences I have had in my college career.”
―Lauren Eagon, senior in natural resource science and management
“Undergraduate students bring such great energy to the lab,” Phillips said. “It’s fun because they oftentimes come in and break the pattern. It can be easy to get stuck with a project, and they see things that you haven’t considered before. They’re not married to a technique. That fresh look is sometimes all you need to spark you forward.”
CAFNR offers paid undergraduate research internships for interested students. Those students are required to develop a research proposal with the assistance of a faculty mentor. For projects that are approved, students will prepare and present their research results at a poster display in the spring. The students who are approved receive a stipend of $1,000 per semester.
Along with CAFNR’s undergraduate research internships, students can also find research opportunities through programs such as Exposure to Research for Science Students (EXPRESS) and the Honors College Discovery Fellowship Program.
“I would tell any student interested in research to start early by talking to professors and offering to help on their projects,” Eagon said. “It is important to make connections, and that is how I found the mentor for my project. Working on different projects also allows you to try new things and find the area that you are actually interested in because it may surprise you. Don’t be afraid to take a leap and make a big commitment because you can make anything work if you are passionate about it.”
Eagon’s most recent research project is focused on reptiles and other small mammals at Prairie Fork Conservation Area. She conducted coverboard surveys at the site, which allows for the long-term sampling of species.
Eagon is working through the survey data with Michael Byrne, an assistant professor in the School of Natural Resources.
“Working with undergraduates can be quite fun,” Byrne said. “It is rewarding when a student makes that switch from following orders to taking ownership of a project and independently coming up with new ideas and techniques.”
“When I started volunteering on some projects for my professors, my passion for research grew, and I only wanted to get more involved,” Eagon added. “When I saw an opportunity to complete original research from start to finish, I could have never passed it up. Finally being able to achieve this goal really excited me, and I knew that the hands-on experience could benefit me in multiple ways, including making me a competitive applicant for my next step of graduate school.”
For Eagon, taking part in research has not only given her an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience, but she has also learned other important life lessons.
“There are a lot of unexpected things that come up when conducting your own research project that can’t be taught in the classroom,” Eagon said. “Dealing with weather or technical issues or any number of things that can go wrong only allowed me to grow as a researcher and student. I gained a lot of confidence in my abilities and knowledge when I was collecting data on my own, and I am really grateful for that opportunity.
“Additionally, I gained a lot of time management skills when juggling my courses and data collection. My study site was about a 40-mile drive from Columbia and planning around my schedule and the many different variables in the field was a new challenge. Working around so many obstacles helped to confirm that research is something that I want to continue to pursue, and I think that this experience helped me to prepare for a future in this field.”
Like Eagon, Phillips said that getting a jumpstart on research is key. While some of the early tasks for undergraduate students can be somewhat tedious, it’s those skills that are vital to a successful project.
“Some of the first things undergraduates do in my lab are clean dishes and learn to make reagents,” Phillips said. “While that can seem mundane, those basic lab techniques make the experiment run smoothly. And as students learn those tasks and gain experience, the trust builds.”
Phillips added that it’s important for undergraduate students to remember that science builds on itself, too. To get through oftentimes mundane tasks, Phillips reminds her students that when they finish their experiment, they will have an answer.
“We’re not going to cure cancer today,” Phillips said. “But we are answering these incremental questions that build on each other. It’s exciting to know that you’re determining something and that no one knows the answer yet.
“Research makes you more of a critical thinker and changes the way you approach problems. You’re not just getting facts from a book – you’re diving deeper into how people gathered those facts. You’re part of something bigger.”