Dana Thomas: The CURiOuS Creator

By Kathleen Wilson 

Before she even got the job, Dana Thomas was looking for ways to innovate our department. To go above and beyond her outlined responsibilities. To make the student experience better. And she’s delivering. As an Academic Advisor with BioSci since September 2014, Dana advises around 200 undergrads, manages BioSci’s Transfer Student Peer Mentor program, helped develop and teaches BSC 303 (Transfer Student Transitions), and even has an Undergraduate Academic Advising Award under her belt as this year’s New Advisor Award recipient. With initiative like this, it’s no surprise the Vassar and University of Michigan alum is also the driving force behind CURiOuS, an NCSU site “Connecting Undergraduates to Research Opportunities in the Sciences”.

“During the interview for my current position, I recall asking Jill Anderson [Biological Sciences’ Coordinator of Advising] about projects that I could work on in addition to advising students,” Dana says. “She mentioned undergraduate research as a potential area of focus.  Research was a major highlight of my time at Vassar.  It was without a doubt essential to my development as a biologist.  Jill’s words sparked an interest.” Thus the seed for CURiOuS was sewed.

In her first year on the job Dana set out researching colleges and universities with strong research programs to see what tools they provided their students. “Dr. Sheila Patek, a faculty member in Duke’s Biology Department, created a fabulous undergraduate research opportunities website (MUSER) that inspired many features of CURiOuS.  She kindly spoke with me by phone and offered helpful advice on the development and implementation of such a site.”  In addition, Dana pulled together a group of faculty and staff committed to undergraduate research to assist her in the development of the site. This committee consisted of Jim Brown, Vicki Martin, Bobbie Kelley, Miriam Ferzli, Beth Hawkins, Carlos Goller, Alice Lee, Lisa Paciulli, John Godwin, Whitney Jones, and of course Dana, who brainstormed together on what features the site should offer. During this process the team solicited faculty interest, and found that 76% of the survey participants were interested in the potential site. “We aspired to develop a database through which students can see a) what research opportunities are out there and b) what qualifications research mentors are looking for.  We also hoped to streamline the process by which students apply to research opportunities,” Dana explains.

“We aspired to develop a database through which students can see a) what research opportunities are out there and b) what qualifications research mentors are looking for.  We also hoped to streamline the process by which students apply to research opportunities.”

-Dana Thomas

She also credits members of the undergraduate research committee for providing insight into how the site mutually benefits students and faculty alike. “Some faculty receive an overabundance of emails from undergraduates asking about research.  Other faculty want more exposure for their lab’s research.  CURiOuS addresses both of these issues.”

“Some faculty receive an overabundance of emails from undergraduates asking about research.  Other faculty want more exposure for their lab’s research.  CURiOuS addresses both of these issues.”

-Dana Thomas

With these goals in mind, Dana set to work in August of 2015 with Senior NCSU Web Developer, Scott Thompson building the site. The Genetics Program piloted BURROW (Biological Sciences’ Undergraduate Research Opportunities Website, CURiOuS’ original/initial form) in January of 2016, who used the site to select undergrads for the Comparative Medicine Institute. Dana then launched the official site that April. The new resource worked so well, that it wasn’t long before word got around to other COS departments who wanted in. With that, BURROW became CURiOuS. “I changed it from BURROW (biology only) to CURiOuS (all science disciplines) last fall when science departments outside of Biological Sciences expressed an interest in using it,” she recalls. “NC State is definitely a place where collaborative innovation is encouraged.  The fact that BURROW had to change its name to CURiOuS in less than a year to accommodate additional departments is evidence of this.”

So where is CURiOuS going? Dana encourages research mentors to keep the feedback coming to facilitate improvement of the sight. “My hope is that we can continue to expand CURiOuS by adding more departments in the future.” And advice for undergrads? Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there (on CURiOuS)! “We noticed that there is a misconception among undergraduates that one must be a superstar student already confident with conducting independent research in order to get involved in a lab.  In reality, most faculty want students who are sincerely interested, curious (haha), dependable, communicative, and who can commit at least a year in their research group/lab,” Dana stresses. “In other words, a perfect GPA and prior research experience are often not necessary.  This misconception keeps potentially stellar undergraduate researchers from even looking into opportunities!” And opportunities are growing. Dana reports since its pilot, CURiOuS has placed about 48 students in research positions so far. More positions are in the works, and many are singing the site’s praises:

“I found 2 amazing undergrads through CURiOuS. One is coming back this year to delve further into her project on how textbooks visually present evolution. The other student completed a project on changes in insect representation in texts over the past century. She’s written a manuscript and we’re currently submitting it to a journal. Both students are diligent, bright, and just all-around great people.”

-Dr. Jennifer Landin,

Teaching Associate Professor

“I used the site when it was still BURROW, and really appreciated the opportunity to see the students’ written statement about research interests. It gives a quick writing sample and lets me know if they paid attention to the content of the job posting, in addition to if they are a good fit research-wise. The student I ultimately selected was successful in the lab, and has since graduated and gotten a lab tech job in RTP. She told me that her experience working in the lab was the most important thing in getting the job she wanted.”

-Dr. Emily Moore,

Post-doctoral Research Scholar

“CURiOuS has been a fabulous tool to refer students to and encourage them to see the unique opportunities available on campus. There are paid jobs, jobs for credit, and volunteering opportunities. The Research Mentor Dashboard is easy to use and allows us to download applicant lists and quickly search for application materials. We have used it successfully several times. Every time I visit the site more jobs are posted! I hope others begin to use this system so that it becomes the go-to resource for our students and faculty.”

-Dr. Carlos Goller,

Teaching Assistant Professor

 

So there you have it, everyone. Spread the word and get started on CURiOuS today.