CRYSTAL LAKE – Marla Garrison has known for years the work outside the classroom can sometimes open more doors than the work inside it.
Garrison, a biology instructor at McHenry County College, has offered students opportunities for conducting research in the field of microbiology outside of normal class work for four years.
That one-on-one, independent research has led students to pursue doctorate degrees at prestigious schools such as the University of Michigan and the University of Illinois and work with world-class scientists at Georgia Tech.
The success stories she has seen operating her own research program is why she is excited to see McHenry County College encourage students across all disciplines to participate in undergraduate research projects by offering credit hours.
“I think that the students that want to do that kind of research want to delve deeper than what they can cover in a typical semester,” Garrison said. “In science fields, it opens students up to more than lab exercises that have already been tested. They come up with original research and experiments on things that have never been tested.”
The Undergraduate Research Scholar Program at MCC is in its second year after a successful pilot program last year. The program requires students to develop an original research topic that will be studied, tested and examined throughout the semester under the guidance of a faculty sponsor.
At the end of the semester, the student must present the research in a poster series forum, similar to a peer-reviewed journal article professors and academics would draft. The program is similar to a thesis program in graduate school.
Evette Thompson, coordinator of career services at McHenry County College, said the program has strong potential to grow and provides experience colleges at the next level desire.
“I connected with another college and they were very pleased to see a community college is doing work like this as well,” Thompson said. “Our hope is it will continue to grow. I already have more instructors very interested in sponsoring students.”
Anne Donald is one student who believes the program will be a springboard to her goal of earning a degree in creative writing at Columbia College in Chicago.
Donald’s research project – “Defining Popularity in Genre Fiction” – investigated which genres translated into the most public popularity and the tools aspiring authors would need to craft successful stories within those genres.
Between reading through professional journals and interviewing successful authors for her research, Donald still managed to juggle a full class load, part-time job and her responsibilities as president of the Writer’s Block creative writing club.
Now she is searching for a scholarly journal to publish her final research.
“I loved the independence of the program,” Donald said. “It wasn’t about sitting in a room with 20 other people and going through a prepared plan. You have to come up with everything.”
Garrison said there are many other students with Donald’s passion for their subjects that she expects to take advantage of the program in coming years.
“In art and theater, writing a play would be an original work,” Garrison said of the benefit the program has for all disciplines. “To showcase those talents and have a mentor in the process is invaluable. The earlier we start these things the better.”