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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

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Lisa Kath (Photo: Tim King) Lisa Kath (Photo: Tim King)

Sparking Interest in Undergraduate Research

Lisa Kath, director of undergraduate research and creative activities, wants more students and faculty mentors to participate.
By Michael Price

“There are so many excellent research and creative endeavors going on at SDSU. Helping to get more undergraduates involved is a really wise investment.”

When San Diego State University’s Division of Graduate and Research Affairs made the offer to SDSU psychology professor Lisa Kath to become the division’s director of undergraduate research and creative activities, she admits to a moment of doubt.

“I was happy with my teaching, and I got nervous about giving up my comfortable bubble,” she said. “But ultimately, I was convinced that this was a critically important job.”

That job—which she accepted and began at the start of this semester—entails boosting the quantity and quality of undergraduate student participation in scientific research at SDSU, as well as participation in performing arts and other forms of creative output. Demonstrated research or participation in creative activities on a student’s resume can dramatically help them when applying for jobs or graduate school, Kath said.

“There are so many excellent research and creative endeavors going on at SDSU,” she said. “Helping to get more undergraduates involved is a really wise investment.”

Kath would know. She’s an industrial-organizational psychologist, specializing in a field that examines how people can best succeed in the workplace. Over her 11 years at SDSU, she has mentored 34 undergraduates and served on six undergraduate honors thesis committees. Many of those students have gone on to graduate school or gainful employment immediately following graduation.

One prong of her approach will be explaining to students why these types of undergraduate research experiences are a worthwhile and attainable endeavor. In some cases, that could be as simple as pointing out the resources already in place within departments to help students make connections with faculty active in research and creative endeavors. In other cases, it could mean encouraging students to look outside their major for interdisciplinary opportunities.

She also plans to encourage as many undergraduates as possible to attend the annual Student Research Symposium to get a feel for what undergraduate engagement in research and creative activities can look like.

“When they see their peers doing it, it means way more than anything I could say to them,” Kath said.

Another prong will be helping support professors who might be interested in involving undergraduates in their research or creative work, but are unsure about the workload or commitment required of such a decision. For example, the SDSU Writing Center can help students get up to speed on the writing skills required for preparing a conference submission, and the Mathematics and Statistics Learning Center can improve their competency in the mathematics skills necessary for crunching equations.

“We want to let faculty know they aren’t mentoring these students in a vacuum,” she said. “We can help them find the right undergrads, to set expectations, to train them, to learn to trust students and give them appropriate tasks.”

In the most cases, undergraduate research winds up being a boon to both the students, who gain meaningful experience, and faculty, who not only find mentorship rewarding but also get needed assistance with the innovative work they are already engaging in.

“Undergraduate research isn’t just a service to the students,” Kath said. “It can be a service to faculty, as well.”