The goal of this workshop is as follows:
To increase the participation of first-generation college undergraduates in basic academic research, specifically the human neurosciences.
First-generation college students (i.e., students whose parents did not graduate from a four-year undergraduate institution) make up a significant part of the student body at large state universities like The University of Iowa. Around 25% of our students are first-generation college students.
The premise of this workshop is that we have identified that a lack of research exposure in first-generation students leads to a lack of awareness of research as a career, and ultimately results in an underrepresentation of first-generation students in basic academic research. To address this problem, the 1st gen Brain Research Workshop provides a short-term, intensive, hands-on opportunity for first-generation students to get a very quick insight into human brain research methods, the tasks of an RA in a human brain research lab, and provide them with an opportunity to obtain an undergraduate RAship in a UI human brain research lab.
Figure 1. Survey data regarding scientific participation of undergraduates, split by first- vs. continuing generation. Data gathered from the University of Iowa Office of the Provost, the SERU survey, the UI Senior Survey, and the ICRU.
From my own experience as a former first-generation college student, I know that many such students have a significant lack of awareness of academic research as a possible career. When I started my undergraduate degree, science had never occurred to me as a possible career, and I only got involved in research by pure chance (in the form of a Professor recruiting me out of class). Importantly, the generational component plays a huge role in this lack of awareness of basic science as a career path, as many in my immediate and extended family questioned the utility of a PhD degree, since they never were exposed to science in a professional context.
More important than this anecdotal report is that this lack of awareness of basic science as a career opportunity is clearly evident from survey data gathered at The University of Iowa (Fig. 1). The underrepresentation of first-generation students in the basic sciences is already evident from a cursory look at the graduating majors: while first-generation students made up 25% of the total graduating class that first enrolled at Iowa in 2012, they accounted for only 22% of the degrees in science-heavy majors (data gathered from the Office of the Provost; major programs: Anthropology, Applied Physics, Astronomy, Biochemistry, Biology, Biomedical Sciences, Chemistry, Computer Science, Environmental Sciences, Geography, Geosciences, Human Physiology, Informatics, Mathematics, Medical Laboratory Science, Microbiology, Physics, Statistics). Crucially, this disparity becomes much more severe when comparing the level of scientific exposure outside of the classroom between the groups. According to the “Student Experience in the Research University” (SERU) data for the University of Iowa, which was performed on the entire undergraduate student body enrolled in Spring 2016 (N=20,537; 4,402 responses), 20% of all continuing-generation students indicated to have “Assisted faculty in conducting research”. The corresponding percentage for first-generation students was at a drastically lower 14%. This is further corroborated by the Senior Survey performed independently from the SERU on all Iowa graduates since 2015: while 30% of all continuing-generation students answered “Yes” to the question “During my time at UI, I participated in research with a professor outside of my regular course assignment”, that percentage in first-generation students was only 23%. Finally, the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates (ICRU) offers summer research scholarships for undergraduate research assistants in laboratories on campus (my own lab had an ICRU scholar in both summers since my lab’s inception). ICRU data from the last two summer scholarship periods confirms the above trend: in both years, only 19% of applicants to this program were first-generation students, reflecting a relative underrepresentation of 24% compared to their share of the overall undergraduate population (25%). Hence, these three different data sources all tell the same story: first-generation students do not participate in undergraduate research to the same extend as their continuing-generation counterparts.
Figure 2. First-generation applicants to the Neuroscience Graduate Program at the University of Iowa.
This lack of exposure to out-of-classroom research opportunities during the undergraduate career directly translates to differences in the motivation to obtain a post-graduate degree in the sciences. While 19% of continuing-generation students indicate a plan to obtain an PhD, MD, or MD/PhD degree, that percentage is only 16% in first-generation students (SERU). Perhaps the most glaring finding in this regard comes from the specific application data of the University’s own Interdisciplinary Graduate program in Neuroscience: Out of all 523 applicants to this program since its inception in 2012, only 12% had been first-generation students (Fig. 2).
The goal of the outreach component of this grant proposal is to provide first-generation students with an opportunity to gain insights into the research process in human brain science with low initial commitment. By far the most common research opportunity undergraduates engage in outside of the classroom is as a volunteer research assistant. However, these spots are usually in limited supply. Also, in the overwhelming majority of cases, these opportunities have to be explicitly sought out by applicants. The lack of awareness of those opportunities in first-generation students is very likely a contributing factor in their underrepresentation in undergraduate research in the first place. This problem is aggravated by the insecurity surrounding the expectations for such unpaid positions – students who are unaware of science as a career will likely not know what to expect when they join a research lab, and may be intimidated by the commitment. Hence, the goal of this outreach program is to provide as many first-generation students with a first-hand, commitment-free experience of how human brain research is done in an academic research lab, as well as what the tasks of an undergraduate research assistant in such a lab are. The program also aims to provide them with an immediate opportunity to apply as an undergraduate research assistant.
A summer workshop for human brain research
The goal of this ‘summer workshop’ is to engage as many students as possible in an intensive 4-day program that involves:
a) Day-long ‘crash courses’ on three common methods of human brain research (EEG, fMRI, TMS).
b) Presentations from, and interactions with, researchers using these methods at Iowa.
c) Q&As with current undergraduate RAs performing human brain research at Iowa.
DAYS 1 – 3. The first three days of the workshop are designed to provide participants with a high-level, yet instructive overview of three of the most commonly used methods for non-invasive human brain research; EEG, TMS, and fMRI.
Theoretical lectures. Every day starts with an overview lecture that explains what is measured by each method and provides straightforward examples of how it is used in the literature.
Hands-on data collection. The theoretical lecture is followed by an extensive, hands-on session during which the participants learn about the hard- and software involved in the actual data collection process and will receive instruction on how to collect each type of data. The EEG session (Day 1) will take place in the PI’s EEG laboratory in the Neurology Department at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC). The TMS session (Day 2) will aim at TMS-MEP, which is comparatively easy to learn and quick to do (unlike EEG). Therefore, this practical session will also involve data collection on a brief behavioral experiment, in which each participant will produce a dataset collected by their peers. These data will then be used in the afternoon sessions (see next paragraph). The TMS sessions will take place in the PI’s TMS laboratory in the General Hospital at UIHC. The fMRI session (Day 3) will take place in the research-dedicated 3T imaging facility in UIHC’s MR research facility. It will begin with a safety briefing by the facility’s personnel. Data will be collected by full-time staff, which will explain the individual steps involved in fMRI data collection. Each participant will then also perform a behavioral task in the scanner for a 6-minute session. These data will then be used in the afternoon session.
Data analysis lectures. These short lectures are designed to provide a cursory overview into the basic data analysis strategies for the three methods. The EEG lecture (Day 1) will cover pre-processing (filters, artifact detection, blink rejection) and the event-related potential technique. The TMS lecture (Day 2) will cover EMG pre-processing (filters, artifact detection) and averaging procedures for the motor evoked potential technique. The fMRI lecture (Day 3) will cover pre-processing (spatial filtering, co-registration, motion correction) and simple contrast statistics. Each lecture is designed to take a very practical approach to the analysis strategy that can be easily translated into the subsequent practical session.
Hands-on data analysis. For the majority of the afternoon, the participants will get an opportunity to try basic data analyses for each technique as described in the previous lecture. The EEG session (Day 1) will use EEGLAB and will use example data from the stop-signal task collected in the PI’s lab. The goal is for the participants to learn how to preprocess data and generate simple ERPs using EEGLAB’s GUI. The TMS-MEP session (Day 2) will use custom-programmed MATLAB software that is already present in the PI’s lab, which provides GUI interfaces for EMG/MEP plotting and artifact rejection. The participants will learn how to average MEPs between conditions, to measure their mean amplitude in each subject, and to contrast them between conditions. The fMRI session (Day 3) will use the FSL GUI, which allows easy and intuitive pre-processing of fMRI data, as well as plotting of 3D contrast images. The goal is to use the data collected in the morning session.
DAY 4. The final day of the workshop is designed to give participants a glance into the ongoing human brain research at the University of Iowa, provide them with opportunities to interact with lab directors looking for potential undergraduate RAs, and provide an opportunity to quiz current RAs about their jobs in the PI’s laboratory. The morning will consist of three one-hour sessions with a PI at Iowa that uses one of the respective methods covered in the workshop. The goal is to have one PI per method present an overview of the work in their lab (~30min), followed by a 30 minute Q&A, during which the participants are encouraged to ask questions about the work and about undergraduate RA opportunities. These sessions will be followed by a two-hour lunch/roundtable with current RAs in the Wessel Lab and other labs, during which the participants will get first-hand accounts of what work in the respective laboratories entails. The goal of this fourth day is to engage students in direct interaction with other students and PIs already doing human brain research at Iowa, with the goal of placing them in the respective labs as undergraduate RAs.