The Scientific Method

Undergraduate research is a critical part of Learn by Doing in the College of Science and Mathematics. A historic gift to the college is about to make that tradition even stronger.

This spring, Cal Poly alumnus Bill Frost (Chemistry, ’72) and his wife, Linda, pledged a record- breaking gift of $110 million — by far the largest in university history, as well as in the history of the entire California State University system. The gift is aimed at one specific goal: making the undergraduate academic and research programs in the College of Science and Mathematics (COSAM) among the best in the country.

“I see this as an investment in the education and future successes of our science and mathematics students,” says Bill Frost. “I want this funding to be used to further enhance the Learn by Doing experiences that de ne Cal Poly and to provide students with research opportunities that will result in their presenting at regional, national and even international professional conferences and co-authoring publications with their faculty mentors in peer-reviewed journals.”
Specifically, the gift will go to fund several areas, all aimed at enhancing research capabilities. It will fund a new facility on campus that will feature 18,000 square feet of space dedicated to research; it will allow the college to hire teaching post-docs, with the targeted goal of freeing up faculty members to collaborate with students on original research; it will provide for acquisition and maintenance of research equipment and instrumentation; it will fund a new scholarship program targeting high-achieving students interested in research; and it will support students who want to stay on campus over summers and vacations to conduct research with stipends.


The gift supports an aspect of the Learn by Doing tradition that is already one of COSAM’s biggest strengths. Many students in the college engage in rigorous, original research in collaboration with a faculty member. Two thirds of peer- reviewed research published by COSAM science faculty are co-authored by undergraduate students.

The close faculty-student connections at Cal Poly and the university’s focus on undergraduates strengthen the research experience.

“Here at Cal Poly, educating undergraduate students is the point, and research is a means to that end,” says Phil Bailey, the dean of the college who worked with Frost for years to develop the gift.

“Undergraduate research is probably the strongest teaching tool we have,” says Derek Gragson, an associate dean at the college. “You’re able to engage a student in applications of the fundamentals of what they’ve learned in their coursework, but outside of the classroom in an open-ended problem where the answer is not known. But they’re getting the picture of what it takes to be a scientist.”

“Doing research is a real Learn by Doing experience,” says Shanju Zhang, a Cal Poly chemistry professor who has worked frequently with undergraduate collaborators in his research on innovative polymer technology. “Undergrad collaborators get involved in every aspect of research, including making research plans, designing experiments, data analysis, problem solving, writing papers and presenting data to peers. They behave like real experts and exchange ideas in a free academic atmosphere.”

Physics major and Frost Scholar Marissa Dierkes began her research on carbon nanotube networks as a freshman.
“The opportunity to do undergraduate research starting my first year has dramatically affected my career at Cal Poly for the better,” Dierkes said. “I’ve learned to accept and adjust to failures and unforeseen problems. I got to see and apply the course material in my research as I was learning it, and I’ve discovered what I want the future to hold for me. None of this would have been possible without the opportunities presented by Mr. and Mrs. Frost.”

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The results of COSAM’s focus on the research experience are significant. “Industry recruiters and graduate advisors will take a Cal Poly student any day of the week — we hear that all the time,” says Gragson. “They love our students because they know that they’re ready to work right away.”

Graduate school admissions are an important step for many COSAM students between undergraduate studies and a science career, and experience as an undergrad researcher has a significant impact on both interest and acceptance rates in pursuing that trajectory. For example, compared to similar universities, Cal Poly is second in the nation for students who go on to get a PhD in chemistry.

“It’s because we get great students here, and we engage them in research early on and we talk to them about that path,” says Gragson.

“Participating in undergraduate research at Cal Poly has provided me with a set of skills and a passion for research that will be invaluable to me as I pursue my graduate education,” says Sierra Durham, a graduating chemistry senior and Frost Scholar who has presented at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, is rst author on an upcoming peer-reviewed journal article, and will begin graduate studies at U.C. Davis this fall. “Undergraduate research has really made all the difference for me. Without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”


At a ceremony unveiling the gift to the public in May, Frost challenged university and college leaders to make the most of the gift and work toward making COSAM one of the top undergraduate academic and research programs in the nation. With his historic gift, that goal is within reach.

“This gift represents a genuine desire by the Frosts to provide Cal Poly students with research experiences that promote intellectual growth fueled by curiosity, critical and creative thinking and personal initiative,” says Bailey, who is retiring in June after nearly 50 years as a professor and administrator at Cal Poly. “Working with Bill on this project has been a highlight of my career.”