Publishing Results: The End of the Beginning for Undergraduate Researchers





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Editor's Note: This is the second article in a two-part series exploring the contributions of undergraduate researchers at UC Berkeley. Part one appeared in last Wednesday's paper.

Undergraduate researchers comprise a silent army at UC Berkeley, seldom seeing their work reach publication.

Many undergradutes have turned to campus publications to provide a forum for their results.

One of these journals is the Berkeley Scientific Journal, created in 1996.

It includes feature articles about current scientific research, interviews with professors, and independent research done by undergraduates.

"It's a really great way for undergraduates to get their research published," says the journal's editor in chief Louis Savar. "Oftentime professional journals will only accept papers written by graduate students (or other more senior researchers)."

Civil engineering senior Patrik Meyer works with professor Claudia Ostertag and submitted an article to the journal about reinforcing adobe homes with burlap fibers.

Adobe is a popular material for building low-cost homes, but has limited structural integrity, a characteristic that has led to tragic consequences in earthquakes such the tremor which struck the Gujarat province of India in 2001, leaving the city in rubble and an estimated 15,000 dead.

"When an earthquake hits a structure, you need some system to dissipate the energy," Meyer says.

Publication in a journal is not merely a matter of vanity or resume-boosting.

"Maybe some other researcher will work on it and improve it," Meyer says.

Meyer hopes to officially establish the origin of his idea so that it is not usurped by other researchers.

"I am a bit worried that this technique will be patented by somebody else and poor people won't have access to it," Meyer says.

He James Zhu, a electrical engineering and computer science senior working with bioengineering professor Theodore Cohn, submitted an article about an inexpensive diagnostic device that measures human postural sway.

While nobody can hold their posture perfectly still, postural sway is pronounced in patients with certain neurological diseases.

"Current devices are complicated and most of the time expensive," He says. "They are limited to laboratories or big hospitals."

The device that He and his lab colleagues have built is based around the common optical computer mouse, allowing for substantial cost reductions.

He is glad to have participated in undergraduate research on campus.

"It really gives you a sense that you really have done something," He says. "You get a chance to communicate with the professor and guidance on how to write a professional research paper."

Meyer also considers closer interaction with professors as an advantage of doing undergraduate research.

"By doing research, you get a much closer interaction with the professors. You have access to their insights," Meyer says. "In class, they go over whatever they have to teach you, but in research, you have a chance to discuss in detail specific problems."

Meyer also says that, through application, his research experience reinforced his understanding of theoretical concepts learned in class.

For Aidan Craig, a senior majoring in physics who works with professor Stuart Freedman, his participation in research has exposed him to new ideas.

"A lot of this stuff never gets taught in any class, and you've just got to go out and do some research," Craig says.

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