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.
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.”
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.