Freshman Research Initiative continues to grow, helps other universities start similar programs

This story was written for J310F Reporting Words, Spring 2016

UT’s first-of-its-kind program, the Freshman Research Initiative, celebrated its 10th anniversary this year with a conference to celebrate the program’s success—and help other universities follow suit.

Faculty presented data from the past 10 years at the 2016 Freshman Research Initiative Conference, which was held in early March. The conference also hosted a number of other universities interested in starting their own freshman research program.

The Freshman Research Initiative, or FRI, is a two-semester-plus-summer program that introduces freshmen in the College of Natural Sciences to scientific research through introductory courses and hands-on lab experience with UT faculty. The initiative was the first program to offer this kind of mainstream research experience to freshman, and many other universities are following UT’s lead.

“Without FRI it would have been very difficult to work in the research field as an undergraduate,” said microbiology sophomore Nestor Ruiz. “Getting accepted into a lab can be hard when principle investigators are looking for students with experience.”

This year, the initiative offered opportunities for over 900 students to gain this necessary knowledge of research techniques.

The initiative is organized in a variety of groups centered on different topics, or “streams.” Ruiz’s stream focused on collecting and growing fungi with beneficial properties. Other streams research bacteria living in bees, ways to make healthcare apps, and diagnostics for diseases such as Zika.

While 900 first-year students enrolled in the program is still a substantial number, this is far from meeting the demand of the almost 5,000 students entering the College of Natural Sciences each year. Admission to the program is competitive, and students are evaluated on their standardized test scores on a first come, first served basis.

Freshman Research Initiative director Stacia Rodenbusch said she is hopeful that the program will be able to continue growing to accommodate more freshmen each year.

“We have added seats for over 100 students a year for the past 10 years and I don’t see any reason for this to stop,” Rodenbusch said.

From 2014 to 2015, FRI added three new streams, which led to an 11 percent increase in student seats in the program. Although the program continues to grow at this steady rate, its growth is limited by the availability of funding.

The initiative costs around $3,000 per student. Rodenbusch compares this to the cost of the standard introductory lab courses, which the initiative can replace. The two semesters of the initiative only cost around 6 percent more than the equivalent required lab courses. Costs rise slightly with summer fellowships, which bring the program cost to 27 percent more than regular labs.

FRI is funded through a combination of university funds, grant money, gifts, and endowments. University funds are allocated based on the number of classes the stream faculty are able to teach, and grants and endowments are often given to streams on an individual basis.

These, although they make up the majority of the funds, are not the only source of money for FRI.

“One thing I will tell you that I have learned since I started managing our budget is that some things are harder to capture,” she said. “Numbers don’t always tell the whole story.”

Rodenbusch said that while most labs get enough funding through the university money or outside grants, some turn to other methods to earn the money needed for their students’ research.

“Because there is a fair amount of autonomy between each of the groups, some of them are able to bring in other money through other mechanisms,” she said.

Tim Riedel, a research educator for the DIY diagnostics stream, is in charge of one such group, whose main focus is developing a cheap, easy system for diagnosing the Zika virus in mosquitoes. Riedel is trying to raise $15,000 through a UT crowd-funding website, HornRaiser.

“Unfortunately the launch of the campaign has fallen flat and we’ve only gotten 2 donors in the first week,” Riedel said. “I’m just not sure why folks aren’t donating.”

Rodenbusch said Riedel’s stream is not the only group to raise money through crowdfunding, although they are probably the most active in these efforts.

“Because [DIY Diagnostics] is sort of entrepreneurially oriented, they have people donate funds,” she said.

Although Riedel’s stream is not having much success with their fundraising efforts, they will nevertheless receive enough money through the university to continue their research.

As UT’s Freshman Research Initiative grows, other universities across the country are beginning to adopt their own version of the program. Rodenbusch said the 2016 conference focused on helping other institutions develop their own FRI program.

She said, however, that UT’s FRI will always be the first of its kind.

“FRI is unique to UT,” she said. “I don’t know if anyone else will have one exactly like ours.”


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