STILLWATER — While many of her fellow students are in class, Lauren Foley spends hours in a lab, working with prairie voles.
That's been the case, more or less, since Foley came to Oklahoma State University last year.
Foley, now a sophomore, participated in an OSU program that allows students to take part in meaningful research during their freshman year.
“To me, it was just a good opportunity to get outside the classroom,” Foley said.
Foley, a zoology major, was a part of Freshman Research Scholars, an OSU program that gives about 60 first-year students per year the opportunity to take part in research on campus.
In addition to their regular coursework, those students may either work with faculty researchers on a project that's already under way, or raise a question of their own and, under faculty supervision, develop a study to answer that question.
Foley's freshman research involved social behavior among prairie voles, a type of rodent that is native to the central United States and Canada, including Oklahoma.
Specifically, she looked at whether a male vole can tell other voles apart.
She found that male voles can distinguish among other males, but aren't well-equipped to be able to tell one female from another.
This year, Foley received another scholarship, this time under OSU's Wentz Research Project program, to continue her research.
Foley is building on last year's research, this time looking at whether voles have a kind of home-field advantage — that is, whether voles do a better job of telling each other apart when they're on their own turf.
The freshman research program was beneficial, Foley said, because it gave her the chance to get practical experience in her field even as she went through her freshman courses.
It also helped her form relationships from the beginning of her college career with faculty members who might go on to be mentors in later years.
Tim O'Neil, director of the freshman research program, said those faculty connections are one of the program's major selling points.
The program seeks to match students with faculty mentors whose research interests match their own.
Those mentors not only guide them through their freshman research, O'Neil said, but also work with them for the rest of their undergraduate careers as those students do undergraduate research under other OSU programs.
Many former freshman researchers come back as graduate students to work alongside their faculty mentors, he said.
Involving freshmen in research can have a major impact on the rest of their college careers, O'Neil said.
The program tends to be more of a formative experience than it might be if it took place later, he said, simply because of where the students are in their academic careers.
Freshmen typically arrive at college enthusiastic about learning in general, he said.
As they progress through their majors, their interests tend to become more specific.
By junior and senior year, they tend to think more strictly within their own disciplines — physics majors think like physicists and engineering majors think like engineers.
“When they enter college, they really don't think like anything other than a student,” he said.
Programs are rare
OSU's program was established in 1998 and is only one of a few programs nationwide that allow freshmen to participate in research.
Unlike similar programs in other states, O'Neil said, OSU's freshman research initiative allows students to participate in research in a broad array of fields.
Some students, like Foley, may do research in hard sciences, while others might work on projects in humanities-
From the beginning of the program, O'Neil said, the students are exposed to “more than the standard beaker scrubbing.”
Their starting point depends on their skill level, he said, but even students who come into the program with little or no background in research typically progress quickly from ground-
“Our goal is that this is a meaningful experience to these students,” he said. “They can actually add to the body of knowledge in their field.”
What other universities offer
A similar program at the University of Texas includes students in science-
Our goal is that this is a meaningful experience to these students. They can actually add to the body of knowledge in their field.”