SOPHIA TRAN The Freshman Research Initiative (FRI) in the College of Natural Sciences (CNS) is unlike any other program in the country—it gives first-year undergraduates the opportunity to conduct research pertaining to their majors while developing critical technical and analytical skills necessary for laboratory work and study. The labs are led by the guidance of expert faculty of a a premier research institution such as UT, as well as student peer mentors.
Student mentors in FRI conduct research in a stream for one year and then apply to mentor an incoming group of freshmen sorted into the stream for the spring semester. Each lab accepts a handful of students to be mentors based on their knowledge and willingness to help. There are distinct aspects of the job that serve a unique purpose in the learning experience in FRI. Each of these aspects are valuable in the transition to complex studies that undergraduates may be initially be uncomfortable with.
Acting as models.
One of the best forms of learning is through imitation. Having model students demonstrate techniques and concepts such as experimental protocols, or something as simple as learning how to pipette, is a method that enforces learning through repetition and shaping.
Learning as equals.
Intimidation, especially when transitioning into labs led by Ph.Ds, is at an all-time high. Most often, students are scared of making mistakes and looking ignorant, and thus never ask the questions necessary to grow as scientists. Learning hindered by power differentials is eliminated through mentorship, as peer mentors are students themselves, and can teach effectively to other students.
Needless to say, mentors were once as aimless and novice as the students are. They learned the same techniques in the same way the students do, and have a better understanding of struggles that may arise in lab. Asking for help from someone that you know also made mistakes is reassuring, and it's slightly less embarrassing asking a student when you screw up a simple PCR, as opposed to the PI.
Closing the gap between jargon and understanding.
The importance of learning from other students isn’t new. For example, professors encourage studying together due to the fact that, sometimes, concepts are better grasped when they are explained by people of similar age and experience. We just “get-it” when ideas are reexamined by people outside of crowded, drowsy lecture halls, in terms that we can understand and relate to more simply.
Mentors reduce the individual burden of learning so much in so little time. Having students go through the trials and errors of lab science with the guidance of peers with similar experiences helps create a collaborative learning environment in which no first-year researcher can ever be left behind.
To find out more about the FRI sequence or FRI mentorship, check out the website.