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We all see benefits from research: Susannah Gal

Posted 4/17/19

I know I’ve talked about research in a variety of ways previously. I’m talking about research again in this column because we are celebrating Research Week at Penn State Harrisburg from …

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We all see benefits from research: Susannah Gal

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I know I’ve talked about research in a variety of ways previously. I’m talking about research again in this column because we are celebrating Research Week at Penn State Harrisburg from April 15-19. This is a major event in my office calendar every year as it celebrates the culmination of work done by students and faculty on our campus.

You might think you don’t actually do research yourself. I contend, though, that you do. When you want to buy a car, don’t you look up the different models, maybe check out their gas mileage or what extra features you might want? You might get the reviews on their safety tests or on the ratings of service or likely repairs. That’s research.

High school students might do research about what college they would like to attend. Someone looking for a job might find out which company has a better health care policy or work environment. That’s research.

You might check on the Consumer Reports website to learn which refrigerator or washer are better purchases.

All of that involves gathering information to make a better decision. That’s research.

We have all heard the story about the way Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity in lightning with a kite and keys. But do we know how Thomas Edison converted that information into a commercially viable light bulb? Humphry Davy is credited with the first electric light in 1802, although apparently it was too bright and lasted too short a time to be useful.

I remember visiting Edison’s home and laboratory in Fort Myers, Florida, where there were lots of types of bulbs that he and his assistants tried over a period of intense research starting about 1878. It was about a year later that he perfected a bulb that could be commercially produced. A year is actually a relatively short period of time for a major research project.

Why might research be useful for a student’s college education? So much of what we teach students can seem abstract and not related to the real world. Research in a subject area can help students understand the topic better, how some of the theories about an area were formed and how knowing that information can affect the field or subject in the future.

When I taught my DNA biology course for sophomores in college, I usually would start the class with a question: How do you think scientists figured out that DNA was the blueprint of life? We now know that DNA is the molecule that determines whether we are people or frogs, have brown eyes or blue, or are male or female. However, in the 1950s, that was not certain. So many of the students take for granted that DNA was the molecule that determined these traits, although they might not have realized what research went into proving that.

I loved giving that lecture as it allowed the students to see how exciting research can be and how it can solve important problems in the area they were studying. It also conveyed to them that many of the concepts we teach as “facts” were not known until about 60 years ago (in the case of DNA).

Work has shown that doing research with faculty in college is a “high impact practice,” something that can dramatically affect a student’s grade in college as well as whether they stay in school and graduate on time. I’m learning more about that aspect in my online class titled “Assessing Student Outcomes and Evaluating Academic Programs.” This is the last class I needed to take to complete my graduate certificate in Institutional Research (more on what that is in a future column). 

Surveys of students about their experiences in college and a comparison with their grades and rates of graduation have shown the value of doing research to college students. This experience can also provide useful skills for the workplace — such as how to solve a given problem, how to use a specific instrument, or how to evaluate information from references or online resources. So maybe all of this can help convince you (maybe again) of the value of research.

As I have said before, faculty and staff at Penn State Harrisburg do research in all kinds of fields, including engineering, business, psychology and criminal justice, to name just a few. This week, we are celebrating the research on our campus and showcasing the work done by our talented undergraduate and graduate students.

For instance, on Thursday and Friday, we will have 15-minute talks by the students about their work — starting at 9 a.m. and going until 3 p.m. on Thursday, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday. There will be about 22 talks given during those days.

From 3:30 to 5 p.m. Thursday, we will hold a celebration with ice cream with students sharing their research in a poster format. We have about 29 posters and one art exhibit to see.

There will also be a talk given by Dr. Marissa Harrison at 11:30 a.m. Friday about her research titled “Serial Killers — Their Motives, Crimes and Perspectives.” Harrison, associate professor of psychology, is being recognized by the campus as this year’s awardee for research and scholarly activity.

I invite you to attend any of these events that you might have time for. Come see what kinds of work our faculty and students are pursuing and how research can enhance the educational experiences of the students on our campus. The events will take place in the Olmsted Building. Let me know if you want more information. Hope to see you there!

Susannah Gal is associate dean of research and outreach and a professor of biology at Penn State Harrisburg, and is a member of the Press & Journal Editorial Board. She has lived around the world and made Middletown her home in 2015. She can be reached at susannahgal1000@gmail.com.