MTSU’s Student Organization for the Advancement of Research, also known as SOAR, offers a supportive community for undergraduate students to get real-world research experience.
Part of the university’s Undergraduate Research Center in the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, SOAR secured funding in September 2018 to launch its mission of enhancing research opportunities for undergrads looking to expand their academic experience.
“We have fun!” said Dr. Jamie Burriss, the ORSP program manager and principal staff for the URC. “There’s this super supportive community that will take you from no experience at all (in research) and build you up … to me, I don’t know how much better it gets than that.”
In addition to providing undergraduate students with a group of like-minded individuals to collaborate with and support navigating the research process, SOAR is an avenue for them to attend the National Conference of Undergraduate Research together.
“MTSU had never been before as a cohort,” Burriss said. The organization gives undergraduates “the chance to go together as a cohort, develop their abstracts together as a cohort, submit those, get accepted and actually make the trip out there.”
MTSU also hosts opportunities such as the True Blue Tour, open houses and others for undergraduate researchers to present their projects.
How to get involved and what it entails
Some students feel intimidated to start a research project or join a research organization. Some current SOAR members such as Nathan Smith, a senior pursuing his degree in biochemistry with a minor in agriculture, felt the same way.
“I wouldn’t say I was super confident,” Smith said about his research abilities. “Just being in the atmosphere (of SOAR), it definitely helped me to cultivate and gain abilities I didn’t have.”
“It was very unexpectedly easy,” psychology major Dara Zwemer said about getting involved in research. “I think it’s easier than a lot of people think …. They (professors) want to inspire you to pursue their field of study. They want you there. That’s the biggest thing.”
Joining SOAR is painless, and the organization wants a variety of students.
“We want all students of all backgrounds: no experience to full experience to everybody,” Burriss said.
To become a member, visit the website and click the “join” button. Students fill out a Google form asking for basic information and the research they’re interested in.
The organization welcomes full-time or part-time students. Membership is not contingent upon GPA, prior experience, a STEM focus or pursuit of a research project at all. Students can participate for the workshops and the fellowship.
If students want to do research but do not know where to begin, Burriss will help match them with a mentor and a project.
In terms of commitment, members can devote as much or as little time as they want: attending every meeting, workshop and conference or picking and choosing what best fulfills their needs. As with any peer-support group, the more activities in which each member participates, the greater the benefit for each and all members.
“Research in general has helped me be a lot more motivated in my classes,” Zwemer said. “It makes you realize, ‘Oh, I’m doing something, I’m contributing, I’m applying everything that I’m learning.’”
The benefits are also monetary. “They pay for you to go to conferences,” she added. “They will pay for transportation and bring you there …. They give you opportunities to present.”
“It’s nice to be in the environment with like-minded individuals who have similar goals,” Smith said. “Take that chance. Get involved because it’s going to help you so much in the long run …. You’re going to be able to make connections with professors, with other students, and those connections are going to be vital to your success.”
Burriss feels that SOAR sets MTSU apart from other schools across the state.
“This is a distinct advantage that students have when they come to school here,” she said, adding: “The one thing I wish that we had more of in SOAR is the creative activity students.”
She wants undergraduates to know that parameters for a project are wide — from studies conducted in a lab to plays and dance shows — and not limited to science, technology, engineering and math.
Sophomore Javier Hernandez had no prior research experience before joining SOAR but did have a passion for video.
“Give it a shot one hundred percent,” he recommended. “You choose what you want to do; it’s never forced …. They’ll give you a project that you want to aim for.”
Burriss helped him turn his interest in video into film projects. “I never thought I would do that, and I think it’s pretty awesome,” he said.
— Stephanie Barrette (Stephanie.Barrette@mtsu.edu)