The University’s research initiatives long have reflected the Baylor community—one that embraces scientific exploration and encourages enriching mentorships between students and faculty—and Baylor’s Illuminate academic strategic plan is the avenue to continue cultivating academic endeavors and authentic mentorships between students and faculty.
Illuminate’s health initiative enhances research and experiential learning for students across a range of academic programs. One of these, environmental health science, supports students and faculty seeking solutions to the environmental and health challenges facing our world.
Baylor’s environmental health science program is the nation’s second-oldest of its kind and one of 30 programs accredited nationally. The program anticipates growth with additional opportunities for collaborative research with prominent and distinguished researchers at the University.
Dr. Bryan Brooks, Distinguished Professor of Environmental Science and Biomedical Studies, says such research opportunities are formative for faculty and students.
“Research is the purest form of teaching and mentoring,” Brooks says.
It is fitting that Brooks turns to students—many of whom are undergraduates—to partner in his pursuit of solving today’s environmental and health challenges.
“The research doesn’t happen without the students,” Brooks says. “In fact, the research is happening because of the students and for their benefit.”
Kaitlyn Kelly, BA ’18, has experienced the advantages of undergraduate research at Baylor. Entering her senior year, Kelly partnered with Brooks on a national research initiative called Understanding the Needs, Challenges, Opportunities, Vision and Emerging Roles in Environmental Health (UNCOVER EH). The project involves the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Environmental Health Association (NEHA), and it seeks to better understand the environmental health profession and public health departments through surveys and workshops.
Her work with Brooks led Kelly to assist with a workshop about UNCOVER EH at the NEHA headquarters in Denver. She also presented her individual research project
at the NEHA’s annual education conference in June.
“One of the things I love about Baylor is that we provide research opportunities for undergrads,” Kelly says. “It is important for undergrads to do research projects and work with professors, get experience in the lab, and use technology that they’re going to use in their careers.”
In many universities, undergraduates typically find fewer research positions available. However, Baylor continues to grow opportunities for collaborative student/professor research partnerships to exist. Students are sometimes invited to collaborate on research as early as their freshman or sophomore years.
Research collaboration brings the best of many disciplines together to impact a problem and find a new solution.
“We see the benefits of training students across these interdisciplinary spaces so that they are more prepared when they leave Baylor to be able to tackle some of the greatest challenges of environmental determinants of health,” Brooks says.
In Kelly’s case, research continues beyond Baylor. The UNCOVER EH research project with Brooks is ongoing.
“I still plan on working on it with him because I think it’s an important project, and I really love the topic,” Kelly says. “I don’t think it’s very common to continue the opportunity after graduation.”
Kelly says she will apply what she has learned from Brooks to her pursuit of a master’s degree in public health at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“He lets you do the research and take the lead, which gives you the opportunity to learn how to research and to think critically, developing the passion for asking questions and solving problems,” Kelly says.
The mentoring relationship between Kelly and Brooks will be a lifelong connection.
“Working with students is humbling,” Brooks says. “It’s exciting. It’s gratifying. A five- to 15-minute conversation with a student can change the course of their life. That is very humbling.”
He says such work and conversations underscore why Illuminate seeks to preserve and enhance opportunities to engage students in research.
“Being able to align our interests of committing ourselves to our students at undergraduate and graduate levels, is something that is part of the fabric of Baylor,” Brooks says. “My role is to celebrate their successes, to support their development. Sometimes they don’t always like the advice that we give them, but it’s intended for their personal, professional and intellectual benefit.”
This is a benefit Kelly says she’s experienced at Baylor.
“Our professors are so invested,” she says. “My advisor, Dr. Brooks, would be at a conference halfway across the world and would call me just because I needed something. They take the time to make sure you’re doing OK and that you’re being successful in your classes.”
Brooks says this opportunity to mentor students and collaborate on research is something that has come full circle for him.
“Being at this University that supports, facilitates and encourages that type of engagement, is meaningful to me because a world-class faculty member took the time to mentor me as an undergraduate,” Brooks says.
He adds that collaborative research invites students to apply their gifts, cultivate their calling and give to others.
“With this major of environmental health, I can see my call of protecting this Earth and serving other people, which is Baylor’s mission,” Kelly says.
Brooks agrees and says the health initiative aligns with the University’s mission to equip students.
“It’s been exciting to see and to be able to continue to expand and cultivate an environment where our students can flourish by engaging expertise across disciplines,” Brooks says. “The students are well-prepared to realize those opportunities. The University is supportive of those adventures.”