For the past ten years, Concordia's President's Academic Showcase of Undergraduate Research has encouraged graduate-level work by undergraduates in a cash-award competition.
"The Academic Showcase is a perfect opportunity for students to prepare for grad school and to work one-on-one with a faculty mentor," says Dr. Melinda Schulteis, coordinator of the Academic Showcase. "That's not something you get to do at a lot of universities, so it's a huge benefit to our students."
Participating students undertake a major research project in their field of study under the guidance of a faculty mentor. They produce a 25-page scholarly paper, give an oral presentation before judges and present their project to the Concordia community. The projects, while academic, must also appeal to a broad audience. First place receives $1,000, second place $750, third place $500 and honorable mentions $250.
"I jumped at the opportunity to get into an academic competition," says senior Joel Landis, a double major in political science and history who expanded on a graduate school application essay about China's military future for the Showcase. "It was enjoyable to discuss ideas with professors during the presentation, being challenged to refine my thoughts and present them in a better way. You're not just writing a paper and getting comments back, you're being challenged to do the best you possibly can."
Landis won this year's Showcase for upperclassmen and, separately, received a fellowship to study for his PhD in political theory at UC Davis. His Concordia education and the Showcase experience set him up for graduate work, he says.
"I had fantastic support from professors during the writing process," he says. "Their doors are always open and they love to talk with you. The whole experience was invaluable as I head into grad school."
Dr. Lindsay Kane-Barnese participated in the Showcase in 2005 as a student and says she learned how to conduct research, work independently, balance class work with other pursuits and ask new questions. After graduating from Concordia she earned her PhD at UCLA and returned to Concordia to become an assistant professor. This year she mentored the freshman winner of the Showcase whose research was a continuation of Kane-Barnese's own study of the genetic qualities of baker's yeast, for the purpose of finding cures for human diseases.
"It's really gratifying to give back what was given to me," Kane-Barnese says in her office on campus, where students pop in every few minutes to discuss homework or ask a question. "To help a student relate what she's learning in class to benefit society and apply concepts to real problems has been rewarding."
Her protégé, student Paige Finley, a pre-med major in biology, spent five months conducting research in the lab, growing yeast cells and turning certain genes "on" and "off" to observe their antibiotic resistances.
"There is so much competition for medical school and jobs that you have to do everything you can to get ahead of the game," Finley says. "I learned how to do a lot of stuff many students don't know how to do — researching in the lab, seeing what it takes to find a cure to a certain disease and experiencing how much work goes into working in a lab. The Showcase was a great opportunity."
Dr. Roberto Flores de Apodaca, a professor of psychology at Concordia and an expert witness for 30 years in California courts, has participated six times in the Showcase as a faculty mentor to groups of students. Twice, his students' research papers have gone on to be published in academic journals — an almost unheard-of accomplishment for undergraduates.
"We're replicating a model of training you find in graduate programs," says Flores de Apodaca. "Having that experience strengthens their applications for graduate schools. They are involved in every aspect of the project, becoming experts in the literature, data gathering, summarizing, presenting, discussing, critiquing the literature and writing drafts. Many of the students who've been involved in this have gone on to grad school. There is no doubt in my mind that the work they do for the Academic Showcase contributed to their success."
Read more about the Showcase and see the results from the 2013 contest.