Cutting Edge > Early Career > Developing a Research Program > Bettison-Varga case study

Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga

College of Wooster, Wooster, OH

Lori Bettison-Varga. Photo courtesy of Lori Bettison-Varga.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on February 22, 2006.

Lori Bettison-Varga is a professor in the Department of Geology at the College of Wooster, in Wooster, OH. She is currently the Associate Dean for Research and Grants, the Director of the Keck Geology Consortium, and President-elect of CUR, the Council on Undergraduate Research. (more info) The College of Wooster is selective, small liberal arts college with an independent research requirement for graduation. The Keck Consortium, housed at the College of Wooster, seeks to enrich undergraduate education by providing students with opportunities to participate in high-quality research projects. Clearly, Lori is extremely interested in helping to create successful research experiences for undergraduate students.

At Wooster, every student completes three semesters of research, one semester junior year and both semesters senior year. (For more information, see Bettison-Varga, L., 2006, Creative Activity and Undergraduate Research Across the Disciplines: Peer Review, v. 8, no. 1, p. 19-21.) Faculty members are, of course, expected to mentor students as they work to meet this requirement, from choosing an appropriate topic to completing the chosen project. While there is no specific number of publications that faculty members are expected to produce, some of these student projects are expected to culminate in publication. Although Lori is not currently working directly with research students (because of her position as dean), over the years she has had anywhere from 1-6 students working with her at once, depending on the number of geology majors at Wooster at the time.

Weekly one-on-one meetings

Lori meets with each of her research students on a weekly basis, usually one-on-one. (If she has multiple students working on related pieces of a bigger research project, she occasionally will meet with them as a group, to discuss papers they've all been reading.) She'll spend at least 45 minutes to an hour in each meeting, discussing what the student has been working on for the past week and setting goals for the following week's work. These meetings serve two major purposes: they help the students to stay on top of their projects, and they give Lori an opportunity to hear her students' thoughts processes. That's an essential component to Lori's mentoring.

The challenges of mentoring undergraduate researchers

Several challenges face a faculty member who wants to mentor undergraduate researchers. First, Lori points out, procrastination is an issue for any independent research project. (Her weekly meetings mitigate that.) Second, the pace is different. Graduate students can take the lead on a project, revisit a field area if they need to, and so on; undergraduates are figuring out how to do research at the same time as they are tackling the project, and they usually have a very limited length of time before they graduate. So progress on a research program happens more slowly than it would with graduate students. Third, undergraduates need help focusing—they often want to tackle huge questions, and need guidance in narrowing their projects down to manageable parts of the larger questions, in the time that they have. Finally, to learn about the process of doing research, students need to take ownership of their projects. Leading them through that process is harder than just telling them what to do and how to do it.

Strategies for success

To facilitate students taking ownership of their projects, Lori always offers them choices. In the field, she presents them with multiple possible project ideas. Her students can choose the question that interests them the most. Then, rather than proscribing how they should tackle their chosen problem, she gives them some space to figure out how to pursue it. If they start to wander too far down the wrong path, she reins them in and redirects them, but she believes it's important for students to try to tackle the question of how to approach their projects. She emphasizes the investigative part of the process to develop their creative problem-solving skills. Some students aren't very successful at this; Lori is ready to step in and lead them in the right direction when she needs to.

When it comes to helping a student narrow the focus of a research question, Lori just keeps asking them about how they will answer that question.... "What method with you use? How will that method help you answer that question? How much data will you need to collect?" By helping her students to think through their research plan, she gets them to see how big the question is. Then she helps them to think through how they can contribute to solving that bigger problem, by addressing a smaller piece of it.

Advice for new faculty members

Lori suggests that new faculty make an effort to recruit interested younger students in your research programs. Of course you'll want to work with talented seniors, and you should. But having to spend time every year teaching research methods and lab techniques to a new batch of students can consume a lot of time and energy. If you can get first- and second-year students interested in working with you, they may work with you for several years. Furthermore, as those students gain experience and expertise, they can help teach the next generation of your research students. They can also grow to the point of being able to frame a question and work independently, contributing to your research program in a different way. Growing a culture of older students mentoring younger students allows you to move your research program along more quickly. Lori notes that scientists in other disciplines, particularly chemistry and biology, seem to be better about doing this than geologists, so far.

Overlap of teaching and research

Lori sees an interplay between her teaching and her research program. Whether she is teaching an introductory level oceanography class, or upper level courses in mineralogy or petrology, her work on hydrothermal systems and ophiolites adds an exciting dimension to the discussion of oceanic lithosphere. At the same time, her teaching has informed her research. While Lori's background is in low-temperature metamorphic petrology, teaching igneous petrology has led her to develop an interest in that subject. This is one of the freedoms (and consequences) of teaching at a small school, she points out: you may have to teach outside of your specialty, but you can also allow your research to branch out, exploring topics that are new for you.

Choosing research questions

Lori's shift from low-temperature metamorphic petrology to igneous petrology happened soon after she earned her Ph.D..... She doesn't really recommend this kind of change for new faculty members. What she did at the same time, however, was find a collaborator. This can be especially valuable for new faculty at smaller schools, with limited resources; collaborators can offer you the use of their equipment or labs. Often, all they want in return is an opportunity to meet a prospective graduate student (your undergraduate researcher). If you can manage the transportation, your collaborators will often take care of the rest. It's a win-win-win situation.

When she's looking for new research projects for her students, Lori is always thinking about how they can contribute to an understanding of a bigger problem, by tackling some small sub-problem. Her overarching research goal is to understand the relationship of magmatism to extension in the Colorado River extensional area. That's a huge question, but it can be broken down into very manageable, smaller pieces. For example, each student might use a different type of analysis on the same set of rocks: petrography, rare earth element geochemistry, trace element geochemistry, and isotopic geochemistry. Or several students might apply the same analytical technique to different sets of rock samples. Ultimately, each student's work will contribute to a better understanding of the volcanic rocks in the region—and that's what it's all about.