Teach the Earth > Early Career > Developing a Research Program > Singer case study

Dr. Jill Singer

Buffalo State College, Buffalo, NY

Jill Singer. Photo courtesy of Jill Singer and Buffalo State College.
Most of the information on this page is from an interview conducted by Carol Ormand on January 30, 2006.

Jill Singer is a professor in the Earth Sciences and Science Education (ES/SE) Department at Buffalo State College, the largest four-year college in the SUNY (State University of New York) system, in Buffalo, NY. Currently, she is also the Director of the Buffalo State Office of Undergraduate Research. While faculty members at Buffalo State are not required to involve undergraduate students in their research, the earth sciences side of the ES/SE Department has a long history of doing so, and getting students involved in research is a criterion for tenure and promotion for earth science faculty.

Mentoring undergraduate researchers

Jill sees her work with undergraduate researchers as primarily a teaching activity, mentoring her students in the process of designing and implementing research projects. Both in her work as a faculty member, and in her capacity as the director of the undergraduate research office, she has focused her attention on the mentoring relationship. In the office of undergraduate research, in fact, they are working to create a campus-wide mentoring network where faculty can get together and discuss the mentoring process, share experiences, and identify best practices. Jill explains that, although faculty members are expected to be mentors to their students, it's not something that we've necessarily been taught how to do, or know how to do naturally.

Of course, every student is different, and needs different things from their mentors. To find out what her students need from her, Jill works to establish a rapport with them. Ideally, they will feel comfortable enough to approach her with requests for input, feedback, or help. A pattern of informal and formal conversations, checking in with students about their projects and about school in general, can help build a student's confidence level to the point that they make it known what they need from you as a mentor-whether it is help figuring out the next step in a research project, feedback on their ideas, or just reassurance that the ups and downs they are experiencing are perfectly normal and that you have confidence in them. Jill also makes her expectations clear from the very beginning; any student who works with her knows that they will present their results. The presentation will be at the annual campus-wide symposium held in the spring, a sectional GSA meeting, or some other appropriate venue. As the presentation deadline gets closer, Jill schedules more frequent meetings with her students to make sure that they are making progress and will be ready to present their results.

A network of related research projects

Many of Jill's student researchers have worked on some aspect of her own research program, investigating environmental issues surrounding the restoration of the Buffalo River. Often, this work is funded through the Environmental Protection Agency, so the questions investigated are very practical, specific, and applied. Because the Buffalo River flows through the city, and many students at Buffalo State are from the surrounding region, these problems are also local and relevant to the students. While Jill's students often work as a group to collect data, they generally then move on to work on individual projects.

Occasionally, students come to Jill with ideas about research projects that are outside her area of expertise. In those cases, she uses her network of contacts across campus and in the surrounding region to connect them to someone who does have the requisite expertise. She continues to mentor the student and feels this is an excellent strategy so that the students can conduct projects that they really want to work on. The other benefit is that Jill gets to learn new techniques and explore new topics along with her students.

Jill has also been involved in a number of collaborative projects, working with colleagues in history, sociology, and theater. From 2000-2002, Jill was the project director of an NCUR-Lancy undergraduate research project investigating Buffalo's environmental history over the past century. Over the course of two summers, a total of twenty-four students worked with Jill and four faculty mentors on an interdisciplinary investigation of the environmental and social history of the city.

While the students conducted their own projects, they frequently met as a group, going on field trips together to learn about cultural and research resources available in the community. They also met weekly to discuss their research progress. During the final few weeks of each summer program, the entire group spent many hours together designing, constructing, and painting plywood flats on which the students displayed their research findings. (You can view the displays from the summers of 2000 and 2001 in the powerpoint presentation on the project website.)

Jill has also collaborated with colleagues in the technology department. Students enrolled in a capstone mechanical engineering technology course designed and constructed a wave tank and recirculating flume. Both are used by students in sedimentology to demonstrate physical properties of fluids and waves, levels of fluid turbulence, sediment transport, and development of sedimentary structures. The flume is also used to simulate turbidity currents. These projects are examples of collaboration across departments and offer undergraduates meaningful and challenging research projects, resulting in demonstration equipment that is used to enhance a variety of geology courses.

The challenges of mentoring undergraduate researchers

One of the biggest challenges of mentoring undergraduate researchers is finding the "right" size project for students with many competing demands on their time. Students need to find a balance between classes, work, and social life. At Buffalo State, where most undergraduates are not required to complete a senior thesis, they are choosing to add another activity to their already busy schedules. Because research is an optional endeavor for her students, Jill spends time communicating to them the importance of conducting research as undergraduates, and what rewards it brings to their educational experience.

Strategies for success

Over the years, Jill has found several strategies that help make research experiences successful for her students. These include:

  • Provide a choice of possible research topics, so that students can find one that interests them.
  • Provide students with a context for smaller projects, so that they can see why their research is relevant and significant.
  • Let students know that "bumps in the road" are a normal part of doing research.
  • Keep a sense of perspective:
    • The process is as important as the outcome (research finding). If a student's research project falls short of its original goals, but the student learned about how scientific knowledge is created, the project is not a failure.
    • Know when to apply pressure, and when to ease up. You don't want the end result to be a student who never wants to do research again.
    • Ask yourself: "what does my student want to get out of this experience?"
How will you know if the research experience is a success? According to Jill, you'll see your student's confidence level soar, you'll see him or her taking on more and more responsibility and initiative as the project progresses, and you'll find yourself talking to your student as if he or she is a colleague. That's all very rewarding.

Choosing research questions

In choosing research questions for undergraduates, Jill recommends beginning with a problem that is very well-constrained and well-defined, but expandable. In general, she points out, a research project will get bigger just because things don't work the way you originally expected them to. When students come to her with a broad area of interest, she works to find just one or two closely related questions to which she can harness their unbounded enthusiasm. If they succeed in answering those questions, they can tackle other, related aspects of the same project.

It has worked especially well for Jill to design student projects that are related, in some way, to her own research program, investigating environmental issues associated with the restoration of the Buffalo River. Because of her expertise in this area, Jill is able to define clear, constrained questions of an appropriate scope for her students.