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Every day, Cara Turski, Lena Pound, and Liz Morrow tend to experiments in Dr. Steven Wilhelm's microbiology laboratory. These three undergraduate researchers—and scores of other undergrads in labs across the UT Knoxville campus—are the ones who will make the crucial scientific breakthroughs of the future.
"These students are working beyond the textbooks. The type of work they are doing will be in the textbooks 10 years from now," Wilhelm says. The UT Office of Research supported 88 students through its summer research internship program in 2010.
Wilhelm and hundreds of other dedicated faculty members mentor undergrads undertaking research and creative activities. Wilhelm has worked with more than 50 undergraduate and graduate research assistants, primarily on microbial interactions in aquatic ecosystems. These students seek to understand the microbial components of freshwater and marine food webs, the cycle of trace metals in aquatic systems, and the effect of viruses on plankton.
Turski was a senior at Farragut High School when she participated in UT's Pre-collegiate Scholars program and joined Wilhelm's lab. While she was in middle school, a biology film sparked her interest in virology, and her 2010 summer research project focused on isolating viruses for Crocosphaera watsanii, a significant nitrogen-fixing bacterium in marine environments.
"UT is so huge it can be overwhelming," Turski says. "This lab has given me a community I belong to... I have more people as resources, and it makes me work harder."
Morrow joined the lab as a UT senior after she met Wilhelm during Microbiology 495. She asked for his advice as she pursued a physician assistant degree, and he recommended laboratory research to complement her clinical work. Her summer project focused on Microcystis, a cyanobacterium that can be a serious nuisance in lakes.
"This is a close-knit group," Morrow says. "It's given me a sense of persistence and a new perspective as I learn through others."
Pound came to the lab as a volunteer during the spring semester of her freshman year. Her summer project focused on creating fluorescently labeled virus particles to help analyze viral infections. She had been admitted to the Coast Guard Academy during the summer of 2009 but was injured during boot camp and had to delay her enrollment for a year. She says that working in Wilhelm's lab helped her decide to stay at UT.
"I realize that this is an awesome opportunity, and I want to gain this experience," Pound says. "Working in the lab has enhanced my view of UT... It's a very supportive environment."
Wilhelm encourages students to get involved in undergraduate research as soon as possible, and he encourages fellow faculty members to engage freshmen and sophomores in research and creative endeavors.
"There's an old Boy Scout adage, 'Learn to do by doing,' and that describes undergraduate research," Wilhelm says. "Being a flagship institution, we offer experiences at a state-of-the-art level. This creates opportunities for students to engage at the cutting edge of science. It provides experiences they can't get elsewhere."