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Dean's Blog: Mason Science mentors foster an audacious, questioning mindset


Dean Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm

As one of the largest contributors to George Mason University’s R1 status, our College of Science maintains a strong focus on impactful research experiences by cultivating a questioning mindset throughout all levels of learning.

Some may view a person who asks many questions as overly curious or perhaps even a troublemaker (Why ask so many questions?).  However, we think such a characteristic is essential for a scientific researcher to tackle some of the huge, bold problems currently facing STEM, society, and our global community. As such, the College of Science at George Mason University has created programs and opportunities designed to foster our students’ scientific curiosity and exploration.

Between now and the end of the semester, we have several opportunities to celebrate our student researchers, the educators who nominate and nurture them, as well as the mentors who guide them. Last week, we kicked off our end of semester research celebration with the College’s eleventh annual Undergraduate Research Colloquium virtual poster session.

In events like this, we encourage our scientific community to attend and, you guessed it, ask questions about their research. From their research methods, their findings and what surprised them, gaps found in the scientific literature related to their topic, to challenges they faced along the way and how future studies might build on their results, we continue to challenge our young scientists along their paths to discovery.

We also celebrated the instructional aptitude of about 40 of our STEM Accelerator Learning Assistants (LAs) who presented posters highlighting their teaching experiences, their students’ learning, and new instructional initiatives they have implemented. This experience allows them to reflect on how their experiences have affected them as teachers and learners.

LAs could choose one of three different types of projects: Synthesis (bringing together topics from the LA seminar with their teaching experiences), Design (creating and implementing an active-learning activity for their students), and Research (investigating a research question about teaching/learning). Many of the posters covered their process for asking questions…what types, how, when, and even how many to ask to best engage the classroom and encourage learning the required material. This group even questioned their own questions!

Consider the  US News and World Report’s 2019 take on why undergraduate research matters in college, “The phrase undergraduate research may prompt images of lab coats and test tubes, but that's only a narrow slice of the whole experience. Undergraduate research opportunities extend across disciplines, taking many forms and offering benefits regardless of major, experts say, noting that such work helps students develop a variety of skills that employers value.

Undergraduate research opportunities vary by college, but experts say the experience is really what students make of it.”

It’s important for us to create such opportunities as all stages of a students’ learning. For example, it can be a challenge for transfer students who want to get more research experience but didn’t have the opportunity in community college. How can we help these students coming to Mason later in their undergraduate career find meaningful research experiences?

To address this gap, we created the Mason Science Community of Transfer Researchers program, a FREE interdisciplinary learning community exclusively for undergraduate transfer students. S-CTR scholars connect with peer and faculty mentors and other transfer students to successfully network and navigate Mason’s robust, Carnegie R1 scholarly community. Programs like this help these students prepare to engage in industry work and gain the experience needed for graduate school and future research expectations. We must make the effort to expand research opportunities for these students to strengthen their scientific pathway options.

One of my favorite research activities is run through our Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR). The OSCAR Celebration of Student Scholarship week-long event started with awards, recognizing many Mason Science students and the researchers who encouraged their discoveries and inquisitiveness.

Want to pique your own scientific curiosity? I encourage you to take a few minutes and check out the College of Science students’ research, during their specific showcase, this Friday, May 13.

This reflection on the importance of undergraduate research wouldn’t be complete without underscoring the importance of impactful advising and meaningful mentorship, two critical components  of a student’s research success. I want to send out a massive thank you to all of our staff and faculty who take such time and care to nurture this scientific curiosity. The feeling of joy a researcher receives when a mentee presents their own work is powerful, especially if the students are further recognized as a number of our scientists were by the OSCAR event this week.

Congratulations also to Environmental Science and Policy assistant professor, Jennifer Salerno, who received a 2022 OSCAR Mentoring Excellence Award and thank you to all the Mason Science mentors who nominated students and colleagues and continue to faithfully support these important research efforts.

There are many reasons we encourage undergraduate research: to help explore various career pathways and opportunities, to enhance one’s resume by expanding transferrable, transdisciplinary, collaboration and communication skills, and to build a questioning mindset. This quest to understand, leads our scientists to make important discoveries which can impact the world, while also strengthening our Mason Science community.