A Cure for Scaling Undergraduate Research

by Teresa Koltzenburg, former Director of Strategic Communications, Purdue University Libraries and School of Information Studies

The Office of Undergraduate Research’s CURE-Purdue Program provides faculty with training, support, and resources to incorporate research into coursework to involve more students in research–helping them hone their data science skills, and much more, in their undergraduate years.

Alan Wright, Dr. Rafael Lang, and Emily Kincaid

In Fall 2019, Purdue University students Emily Kincaid and Alan Wright, along with close to 60 other undergraduate students (mostly first years), were conducting research—through data analysis—to detect dark matter. Both physics majors and sophomore-level students, Kincaid and Wright were working on this research through a Physics course taught by Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dr. Rafael Lang, which is one of the course-based undergraduate research experiences (CURE) in the Office of Undergraduate Research’s CURE-Purdue Program.

Lang’s undergraduate Physics course focuses on his particular research interest, the search for dark matter particles using the massive XENON1T experiment, which is located under a mountain in central Italy. On Lang’s faculty web page, he ponders: “What is the universe made of? All we know today is that we don’t know what most of the stuff in the universe really is. We have names for it, calling it ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy,’ but we don’t know its true nature.”

Through the Office of Undergraduate Research’s CURE-Purdue program, Lang is able to involve many undergraduate students in real research and data science analysis, who may, one day, help find the true nature of dark matter.

“I have been building undergraduate research since I started at Purdue eight years ago, and it’s grown more and more. But with a dozen or so students each semester I hit a ceiling, and beyond that, scaling was difficult. The resources provided through the Office of Undergraduate Research really helped me grow beyond that, to the 50, 60 students we have now,” Lang explained. 

“Course-based undergraduate research experiences are an attractive model for engaging more students in authentic research because they can operate at a larger scale than the traditional apprenticeship model of undergraduate research experiences (or UREs),” noted Dr. Amy Childress, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR).

“This increases the overall capacity for undergraduate research. In addition, CUREs are more inclusive than the apprenticeship model. Often, when this model is used, the researcher has to be more selective in the students chosen to join UREs. It also requires students to know how to find such opportunities,” she explained. “The current body of evidence suggests that CUREs yield many positive outcomes for both faculty and students.”

According to Childress, the CURE-Purdue Program aims to provide guidance and support to instructors across a range of disciplines to develop, implement, and assess a CURE.

“The program will provide a larger number of students with access to this valuable experiential learning opportunity, in which they will learn and use the practices of their disciplines and be a part of the discovery of new knowledge,” Childress added.

Beyond the Traditional Lab Experience

Wright and Kincaid noted that they have plans to pursue careers in academia; both are planning to attend graduate school after they finish their undergraduate degrees in physics at Purdue. For both, their involvement in Lang’s CURE has enabled them to hone their data analysis skills and has provided them with important research presentation skills.

Kincaid said these aspects of her experience have helped her become a better researcher, early on in her research career. She also pointed out that she is genuinely inspired by the data analysis research she is involved with in the XENON1T experiment.

“Sometimes I will think to myself, ‘Wow, we really are working on this unique, global project.’ Even if we are not finding dark matter, it just feels like a big thing to be a part of it. That is really interesting for me, and it feels important,” she noted.

Lang affirmed Kincaid’s take on the undergraduate students working on the XENON1T experiment.

“For the students involved in the CURE, they are analyzing data at the forefront,” he said. “The data that we are analyzing is not only unique, in terms of that it comes from the most sensitive dark matter experiment, but also the sheer volume of it, at more than a Petabyte a year. In physics, there are not too many datasets similar in size. It really is ‘big data’ because of this size and complexity.”

As in many research projects, researchers regularly come together to share and compare work, and the structure of the CURE—with its larger scale and ability to involve a number of undergraduate research teams and graduate research assistants—facilitates this conversational collaboration.

Wright noted that, for him, this is one of the most important parts of his undergraduate research experience.

“The feedback is invaluable. Because sometimes you are going down the wrong path, and one of the grad students or Rafael will say, ‘Maybe you should be looking at this a little more.’ And then you can make that switch and start working on that,” he explained. “You also get feedback from people that you don’t meet with regularly, like grad students you are not paired with; they will also have good ideas for you, to help you learn.”

Through his specific CURE, Lang’s students analyze XENON1T experiment data that have not been examined previously by the XENON collaboration, opening the possibility for new discoveries.

“It is always funny to call it a dark matter detector because we have not detected dark matter yet, but we’re trying to; we are using data from that detector, analyzing it, with the undergraduates here at Purdue,” he explained. “In different semesters, students see different things, they are trying to find different kinds of dark matter, or trying to understand different aspects of the detector. It is real research; many of the same things that researchers do in an advanced lab, (e.g., learn presentation skills, statistical analysis, big data). Often researchers do all that in a lab but, the difference here, in this course, is that we very honestly do not know at the beginning of the semester what the outcome is going to be at the end of the semester. So it is research, in the sense that it is completely open as to what the results are going to be. We don’t know.”

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