It’s not unusual for new college freshmen to spend awhile exploring what they want to pursue academically and as a career, but the Science Research Fellows (SRF) major in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences provides a quick start for students who have their eyes focused on scientific research.
The interdisciplinary major, first offered in the fall of 2017, was designed to attract high-achieving students interested in scientific research in the areas of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, psychology, neuroscience, environmental science, anthropology, geosciences and physics. However, the focus of the program is on students who are considering graduate school and a career that involves research, instead of students on a traditional prehealth track.
The SRF program is led by Dr. Rizalia Klausmeyer, senior lecturer in chemistry and biochemistry and director of undergraduate research in the Office of Engaged Learning in the College.
“A lot of students come to Baylor because they want to go to medical school, but we wanted to focus this program on those who want to go to graduate school,” Klausmeyer said. “If you go to grad school, you have to do research — that’s what it’s all about. So, why not have a major that actually allows those students to spend more time in the lab?”
During their freshman year, Science Research Fellows are required to take a class on research methods covering a range of scientific disciplines. Then, over the next two or three years, they work in the laboratories of Baylor faculty members as well as take courses in their chosen area of science.
The major is not for the timid. To qualify, students must have high SAT and/or ACT scores. They must also complete an application, answer a questionnaire, provide two letters of recommendation from high school teachers (including one science teacher) and have an interview. Once accepted into the program, they must maintain a GPA of at least 3.5.
Most of the inaugural SRF class is graduating in spring 2021. Its members include senior Emma Fraley, who is concentrating in biology and plans to pursue a dual MD/PhD, ideal for physicians who want to do research. Fraley said her love for studying the human body began in the fifth grade.
“I read all of the science books in my school library, and when I ran out of books to read, I went to the public library,” she said. “But it never really occurred to me that I could actually do science. I just thought that was for other people.”
“We come from very different backgrounds, but we all have this common passion for science and research.”
Emma Fraley, SRF major
Senior Kathleen Klinzing is studying biochemistry and is also pursuing an MD/PhD. She began reading scientific articles after various members of her family were diagnosed with cancer.
“I thought, wow, I can try to keep this from happening to someone else by researching it, and also get the physician side of it because I had really been impacted by the doctors that my family members have had and the way they tried to improve the lives of their patients,” Klinzing said.
Senior Joelle Kim’s father is a NASA engineer. She liked science and decided the SRF major would be a good road to premed until she learned about the MD/PhD option from Klinzing, her roommate.
“Just being part of the Science Research Fellows community showed me that there are a lot broader career directions you can take,” Kim said. “The world of science and the world of medicine are now so interdisciplinary and so large that there are a lot of different interests you can explore.”
“Being part of the Science Research Fellows community showed me that there are a lot broader career directions you can take.”
Joelle Kim, SRF major
Aeleia Hughes was an SRF major who graduated early from the program with a concentration in biochemistry. Hughes said she knew for a long time that she wanted to be a doctor. A medical education certificate program in high school introduced her to research and sparked her desire to continue doing that at Baylor through SRF.
A key feature of the first-year schedule followed by SRF majors is the Research Methods course. It gives students quality time spent working with some of Baylor’s top research professors, including Dr. Erica Bruce (environmental science), Dr. Joseph Taube, Dr. Bessie Kebaara and Dr. Leigh Greathouse (biology), and Dr. Michael Trakselis and Dr. Bryan Shaw (chemistry and biochemistry).
“Different professors came and talked to us about their labs and their professions and about how they started asking questions to figure out answers to some pretty tough and cool problems,” Kim said. “It was nice to see how there is a tie-in to the labs I could see physically and the conceptual science that I had heard about.”
This interaction with research faculty ultimately helps SRF majors get into labs otherwise filled quickly by upperclassmen and graduate students. In their sophomore year in the program, SRF majors are asked to join a professor’s lab team and commit to working in that lab for a minimum of two years.
“Having the Science Research Fellows major tells professors that you really are interested in research, so it’s a lot easier to get into a research lab because of that,” said Vasu Goel, an SRF major who graduated from Baylor in December 2020 and has plans for medical school. “I think most majors have a challenging time trying to find research and then also get involved with it. That’s what the Fellows does really well — getting us into those labs, and then keeping us on track.”
Evan Mastin, a senior SRF major concentrating in chemistry with plans for physical chemistry research in graduate school, said the first-year research class provides a definite edge.
“I think being a Research Fellow has helped build my application for graduate school and has made sure I’m doing what I need to do to make myself competitive,” Mastin said.
Klausmeyer commends Baylor’s research faculty for their buy-in to the program.
“They have embraced the SRF majors because they know these students have a commitment to the laboratory,” she said. “The professors like that commitment because if you train an undergraduate student well, they will work with you for three years and at the end they’ll be like a graduate student.”
Klausmeyer affectionately refers to the members of the first SRF cohort as “guinea pigs” because they helped shape the program.
“We were all learning together about the program, about students, about how the faculty would react,” she said. “Some things we did that first year worked very well, some did not. We have been improving every year, learning from both successes and mistakes.”
Being in the first class was “sort of like a double-edged sword,” Kim said. “On the one hand it was a really exciting opportunity to be able to help build and construct a program, but on the other hand the uncertainty was always there. There’s no track record of success or track record of failure, so it’s pretty much a blank slate.”
“It’s been an amazing process,” Hughes said. “Every time we would have a question and there wasn’t a set answer, we’d go to Dr. K and she would put that back on us and say, ‘Okay, so what do you think it should look like? How do you think we should shape this for the future?’”
“A lot of the flexibility is on us, but everyone on the Baylor faculty has been really great,” Klinzing said. “It’s nice to be able to design your own schedule.”
Goel said that if asked about their major as freshmen, they might stumble with a response. But now, each Fellow has a unique answer.
“The fact that we all created our own definition of what the Science Research Fellows major is and what the University’s definition of our major is I think is very satisfying,” Goel said. “We went from the very unknown to the less unknown, and that’s the point of research anyway.”
Small and Intimate
The first four SRF cohorts included only about 10 students introduced each academic year, and that is by design.
“We have to keep the program kind of small so that we can build a very close-knit community and offer good mentorship,” Klausmeyer said.
The students themselves appreciate the camaraderie they have built, thanks to the intimacy of the program.
“Because there’s so few of us, we get to know each other pretty well,” Fraley said. “We come from very different backgrounds, but we all have this common passion for science and research. I think the sense of community — the sense of family that we get — wouldn’t exist if the major had 100 students.”
Something that has grown naturally out of the program is a mentoring relationship between older and younger students.
“Something we’ve done as the first class is set up a sort of teaching assistant system, where an older Fellow serves as a teaching assistant for the freshmen,” Kim said. “It’s very cool to be able to help form those mentorship and support structures and pave the way for students who come after us.”
Much of the camaraderie comes out of a biweekly research roundtable where two Fellows present their research and lab work. Their peers then provide feedback on ways each student can improve as presenters at future conferences or lab presentations. With that in mind, more opportunities for public speaking have been added to the major, and the final required course for seniors has a strong community engagement aspect.
At the close of 2020 there were 35 Science Research Fellows, 23 of whom were active in research. But the program’s administrators believe that more important than growing the number of SRF students is expanding the mix of sciences those students pursue.
“We have students in biology, chemistry/biochemistry, psychology/neuroscience, environmental science and data science,” Klausmeyer said. “If we expand, it would be to also include students who want to do physics, geosciences, anthropology, statistics and math. Those are the disciplines that I’d like to find students for and grow those areas.”