President's Perspective

Research and undergraduate education are core missions of many universities, but the University of Vermont is exceptional for the graceful mesh of these two endeavors that are sometimes portrayed as being at odds. I am proud that our professors and our programs consistently create ways to bring undergraduates into the research arena, making it a fundamental part of their educational experience.

This year’s recipient of the Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award, an honor bestowed by our alumni, is an excellent example of the magic that happens when a fine researcher and a fine teacher are combined in one person. Professor Paula Fives-Taylor has been a major influence in the lives of so many who have studied here — from undergraduates to medical students — throughout her distinguished career as a microbiologist at the university.

There are many reasons for undergraduates to get involved in research. It opens up a new world of inquiry and involves students in the exploration of important issues; it teaches how knowledge is created and validated and how it can be applied to address significant problems and opportunities; it inspires confidence and opens up a different kind of creative working relationship with faculty and with other students; it creates a habit of lifelong curiosity and exploration; it deepens a student’s understanding of the consequences of knowledge, the responsibilities that accompany the conduct of research, and the importance of the ethical use of knowledge.

When I consider UVM students’ experiences with research, I reflect upon my own and how it shaped me. During the summer between my junior and senior years at Swarthmore College, I worked in the laboratory of a neuroendocrinologist at the University of Pennsylvania. I was so fascinated by what we were doing, studying the role of the hypothalamus in the control of body weight and food intake in rats, that I decided to go on to graduate school rather than to pursue my earlier interest in medical school.

After my senior year, I participated in a field project at Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where we were studying homing behavior in field mice. I spent most of my summer mixing up sticky batches of peanut butter and rolled oats to place as bait in live traps and then in shaking out the annoyed occupants of those traps to identify them and tag them for future tracking. It was cold, it was wet, it was strenuous and I loved every minute of it, but it was clearly not what I wanted to do with my life.

Both experiences helped to guide my path — toward the research laboratory and away from the field. For some of my classmates, the path went the opposite direction. My class yielded a couple of the nation’s leading ecologists and several fine physicians as well as a cell biologist and a specialist in space physiology at NASA. We all were happy with our decisions, which were better informed because of our research experiences as undergraduates.

At UVM, I have been delighted to support efforts that have increased the number of undergraduates involved in research and professional service.

Whether or not a student chooses to pursue a research career, the habits and approaches to seeking understanding instilled by the experience provide a broader repertoire of ways to understand the world and to interpret the discoveries of others. I have not been in a research laboratory since 1985, except as a visitor, but the habits of those years of active research still influence how I approach my responsibilities today.