Ryan Armstrong, a third-year incoming undergraduate, shares how he got involved in wildlife biology research.

There’s much to be learned in the classroom at Colorado State University, but for many undergraduates, that’s only the beginning.

CSU’s $330 million-plus research enterprise includes the energy, time and talents of around 5,400 undergraduate researchers who work in chemistry labs, art studios, archaeology sites and more.

A faculty-mentored research experience can make or break a student’s career path. It can be the most valuable learning endeavor of their time on campus, and there are many ways to get involved.

The Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry is a great place to start. The office manages the annual spring undergraduate showcase, Celebrate Undergraduate Research and Creativity. The office’s primary focus is forging connections between students interested in research, and faculty willing to take them on.

“Research is a high-impact practice,” says Mark Brown, director of the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry, and a faculty member in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “Research gives students more ownership in their community. It provides a different style of engagement than the traditional classroom, and it often leads to higher academic performance and higher rates of retention for students from all disciplines.”

Through one student’s eyes

The power of a research journey is probably best told through a student’s eyes. Incoming third-year undergraduate Ryan Armstrong got his feet wet in wildlife biology through a summer program called Research Experience for Undergraduates. Transferring from Front Range Community College this semester and planning to major in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology in the Warner College of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army veteran is developing a passion for vertebrate biology field work. Armstrong came to research through Bridges to the Baccalaureate, a partnership that supports students transitioning from Front Range to CSU.

Here are Armstrong’s own words:

“Why would any college student bother waking up at 5:30 in the morning, especially during the summer? There was no gym fanaticism involved, no early morning hike to be completed. Only science.

“The project I worked on was about two species of lizards that were present on the Army installation at Fort Carson, Colorado: the Colorado checkered whiptail (Aspidoscelis neotesselata), and the Eastern Fenced Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). The Colorado checkered whiptail is currently listed as nearly threatened under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, so the Army wants a conservation plan in case their populations start to decline further.

“Dr. Lise Aubry, an assistant professor in Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology, and her field team led by Dr. Doug Eifler, were in charge of establishing a monitoring plan to assess the general health of whiptail populations on Department of Defense lands in Fort Carson, where the reptiles can be found.

“We would traipse about various Army training sites on Fort Carson, looking for whiptails. Once we found them we would (safely) capture them and take blood samples to be analyzed later for stress hormones, then release them. Other members of the team would conduct behavior studies on the whiptails.

“When I wasn’t looking for whiptails, I was looking for sceloporus lizards with my mentor, Liz MacAlpine-Bellis. The sceloporus lizards on Fort Carson were displaying a wide range of chin colors, and we were curious about the effects those chin colors might have on the ecology of the animals. We’d capture them, measure their bodies, territory type, and chin color, then release them back into the wild.

“My freshman year of college, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. But I grew up hiking and camping in the swamps of Florida. And in the military, I spent months in the field. I didn’t want to leave the outdoors. I want to be the scientist who spends weeks chasing wildlife in their natural environment.

“When I was a student at Front Range, I had no idea how to get into research. I thought research was for grad students and beyond. But through Front Range’s Bridges to Baccalaureate I learned that undergrads could do research. I applied to CSU’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program, and got in. I told the REU directors what kind of research I wanted to do, what labs I wanted to be in. They found a few labs that were willing to take me, and put me in contact with them.

“Soon, I found myself driving down to a field station near Fort Carson to meet the research team I would spend the summer with.”

Learn more about undergraduate research by contacting the Office for Undergraduate Research and Artistry.