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Focus on Broader Impacts: Dr. Matt Rutter, College of Charleston

Welcome to a new feature of our blog, Focus on Broader Impacts.  As you all (hopefully!) know, each proposal submitted here at IOS requires both an “Intellectual Merit (IM)” and a “Broader Impacts (BI)” section. We see a wide array of distinctive but equally outstanding strategies to address these requirements from successful PIs. Some PIs choose to separate the sections, so they provide excellent individual plans for each individual section.  Other successful PIs find ways to more directly relate their IM section with their BI section, although the distinction between the two is still clear.  While there’s no magic formula for proposing and completing Broader Impacts activities, IOS will use this feature to highlight awardees with unique and/or creative approaches to Broader Impacts.

Dr. Matt Rutter from the College of Charleston and his colleagues deploy a slightly different but equally successful strategy – specifically, they have put together a project where the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts sections are so inextricably linked that it is not possible to distinguish them from each other. It is the unique unity of the sections that has led IOS to identify this project as one with an exceptionally creative broader impact. The project is entitled “unPAK: undergraduates Phenotyping Arabidopsis Knockouts: A distributed genomic approach to examining evolutionarily important traits”.

IOS contacted Dr. Rutter to get some insight into this work. Dr. Rutter explains that the focus of the Broader Impacts is right in the title of the project. The core of the scientific activities are conducted by a diverse network of undergraduates from research institutions, an historically black college, primarily undergraduate institutions, and community colleges. All of these students directly engage in scientific discovery through either in class labs (developed as unPAK CUREs-Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences- that are taught as a multi-week section in related classes such as Plant Ecology) or through research apprenticeships in unPAK labs.

unPAKplanting

The main focus of the project remains the same – to gather phenotypic data on thousands of Arabidopsis mutants that have not been assayed before. However, if a student (whether recruited from a CUREs class or elsewhere) decides to spend some time as an unPAK student researcher (whether it be just a summer or as long as 3 years), they may also get to dabble in the genotyping world of lab work. In addition to learning experimental design, CUREs classroom students also focus on data collection, entry, and analysis. The student researchers do all of these things as well as other activities that may span from plant “husbandry” to DNA extraction. Both groups provide K-12 outreach of their own, and are able to build leadership skills by having the opportunity to take the lead in discussing plant biology at STEM-themed events. Many hundreds of students have been able to benefit from the CUREs program, and unPAK is getting ready to surpass one-hundred student researchers across all of their institutions.

The collaborative team of investigators came up with the idea to do this kind of work when they realized that students could be trained very quickly to collect important data for phenotyping plants, specifically data in terms of growth, survival, and reproduction. Due to the large number of mutant collections available in Arabidopsis it became clear that using a “many hands, many eyes, and many brains” student-centered approach would work best. This approach allows the team to collect large amounts of data, train students to be scientists, and allow students to provide their own scientific insights about the plants they are observing. They decided that since the project was so big they would collaborate across many institutions with faculty mentors from a wide range of research backgrounds.

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The lead scientists are actively tracking their Broader Impacts and are very open to feedback. The team is monitoring how the relationships that undergraduates build through the unPAK network relate to their personal and professional development and their persistence in science. unPAK student researchers are interviewed and surveyed at key points during their research, including when they exit the network and after they graduate. To date, the team has found that student researchers are developing ties with unPAK faculty and peer-researchers at their institution, and they rely on this network for information, resources, and support. They had previously found that there was little interaction with network members from different institutions, so the group responded by working to increase inter-institutional opportunities for the students. They are also tracking methods for how to recognize that students come from all types of economic and cultural backgrounds, and how to reach out to these different groups to help them achieve success in science.

Fortunately for us at the NSF, Dr. Rutter has no problem sharing the secret ingredients to his success. Dr. Rutter explains that it really helped him to connect his Broader Impacts with his strengths, his institution, and his research. His project was a natural fit for him because he works at a primarily undergraduate institution, so this was a group of students that he already had an interest in helping and developing. He is also a strong advocate for seeking collaboration with colleagues beyond the biological disciplines. He notes that designing and assessing broader impact activities are talents of anthropologists, psychologists, political scientists, and sociologists, among others, so cross-discipline collaboration is a way for him to both have a fun time doing something he is not used to and to learn a tremendous amount.

IOS would like to thank the following universities for sharing their work from the unPAK program with us:

Barnard College, Benedict College, College of Charleston, Hampden-Sydney College, Oberlin College, Santa Rosa Junior College, Tri-County Technical College, University of Georgia, University of Prince Edward Island, University of Washington – Bothell and Virginia Tech.  IOS Award #1355106