The Joy of Research “I don’t want to be a researcher, I want to help people.” How many times have I heard those words spoken by one of my master’s degree students? Why is it, I ask myself, that the research world, which brings so much joy to so many of us, is often ... Features
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Features  |   April 01, 2002
The Joy of Research
Author Notes
  • Lorraine Ramig, is a professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing science at the University of Colorado–Boulder and is a senior scientist at the Wilbur James Gould Voice Center of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She is also a member of ASHA’s Research and Scientific Affairs Committee. Contact her by email at ramig@spot.colorado.edu
    Lorraine Ramig, is a professor in the department of speech, language, and hearing science at the University of Colorado–Boulder and is a senior scientist at the Wilbur James Gould Voice Center of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. She is also a member of ASHA’s Research and Scientific Affairs Committee. Contact her by email at ramig@spot.colorado.edu×
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Research Issues, Methods & Evidence-Based Practice / Features
Features   |   April 01, 2002
The Joy of Research
The ASHA Leader, April 2002, Vol. 7, 6-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.07082002.6
The ASHA Leader, April 2002, Vol. 7, 6-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR2.07082002.6
“I don’t want to be a researcher, I want to help people.” How many times have I heard those words spoken by one of my master’s degree students? Why is it, I ask myself, that the research world, which brings so much joy to so many of us, is often perceived by our students as existing in a realm totally removed from anything practical? Since research doesn’t directly help people, some of our students wonder—why should I pursue it?
Sharing the Passion
With this reality in mind—and faced with a class of 30 master’s students enrolled in the required research methods course in the department of speech, language, and hearing science (SLHS) at the University of Colorado–Boulder—I was determined to help my students feel my passion for research. I speculated that if they could step into the world of engaged researchers and feel their daily excitement, the joys of research would come alive and they would begin to see the relationship between research outcomes and their goal of “helping people.” At the very least, I hoped they would begin to see the “real people” and the “real activities” of the research process and feel that they could have a role in this community.
I called this experience “mentored research” and it was considered a laboratory practicum for the research methods course (parallel to the typical clinical practica). Pairs of students selected their research mentor from volunteer researchers. I also invited participation from faculty in related disciplines (e.g., linguistics, computer science, kinesiology) as well as researchers from local laboratories—the Wilbur James Gould Voice Center of the Denver Center for Performing Arts, headed by Ingo Titze, and the Center for Spoken Language Research (CSLR), headed by Ron Cole. In some cases, advanced doctoral students were research mentors.
After classroom discussions of “life in the research world,” the students’ first step was an initial interview with their research mentor to enable them to see the big picture of the research. Not only did this experience allow students to hear the personal account of the evolution of the research, but it provided the opportunity to apply the classroom-taught “language of research.” For example, the interview included questions such as “What types of experimental designs do you use and why?”; “What are your independent and dependent variables in this study?”; and “How do you determine measurement reliability in your work?”
I warned students that researchers love to talk about their work and that the interview might take on a life of its own! In fact, after the initial interview, I began hearing positive things from the students, such as Robin Cooley, who said, “Ever since my initial contact with my research mentor, I can see that my old ideas about research were misconceptions—that it was boring, that it was tedious, that you just dreamed up a question to answer and did your own thing to answer it, or that if you made an error of any kind you were toast. Now I know that researchers must know what researchers before them have done, as well as how answering their own questions will be a significant addition to an already existing body of knowledge.”
Each student pair donated four hours a week throughout the semester to their research mentor. Students put their hands into a number of elements of research, including assisting with literature reviews, grant writing, data entry, galley reading, and poster presentation preparation.
At the CSLR, Scott Schwartz hosted four pairs of students. “We did not create work for the students. Every task these students did and every minute they spent working on a task was essential to our project and saved us an enormous amount of time, “ he said. “As the semester evolved, the students transitioned from seemingly mundane tasks—such as looking for clip art pictures, creating lists of words, and typing in text—to seeing their work appear in software applications and participating in reviewing and recommending improvements to the software.
“The work was not always glamorous, and sometimes the lessons of research were in the mistakes—for instance, the student who learned to save often after she accidentally kicked off the power supply to the computer and lost an hour’s worth of work.”
Each week in class, students were asked to describe what they had done that week in the “real world of research” and how these activities contributed to the overall research effort of their mentor. For example, Janice Fairbank noted, “The research project that I am involved in is huge, and my small part seems quite insignificant in the whole scheme of things. As I have learned from my mentor, however, every little thing that I do is much needed and most appreciated.”
At the end of the semester, students presented a summary of their research experiences to the class. These presentations included an overview of the “big picture” of the mentor’s research program, aspects of the research design, funding, goals for future research, and the students’ specific roles throughout the semester. The mentors were invited to the talks as well.
Rating the Experience
So what did the research mentors think of the experience?
Cole, director of CSLR, said, “Our experience with these students was so positive, I was motivated to write a small Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) grant to fund undergraduate students in our lab over the summer. We anticipate the REU being a great asset to the project, just as the master’s students from SLHS have been.”
Schwartz agreed: “These outstanding master’s students have been a gift to our project. They are bright, hard workers who are helping to build the infrastructure of a Web-based software package that will help teach children how to read.”
Lynn Snyder, a professor and chair of the SLHS department, said, “It has been one of the more exciting experiences I’ve had working with students. Their excitement is absolutely contagious! After they had coded and entered some data into the project database, I showed them how to use a statistical program to analyze it.
“They asked great questions about the choice of statistical measures and their relevance to the research questions. But the real high point came when I ran the tests and we looked at the results together. They all cheered when the first analysis produced significant findings. We all felt that we were part of something very exciting!”
Angela Halpern and Jennifer Spielman of the Wilbur James Gould Voice Center each hosted a pair of students. Halpern and Spielman have the relatively unique positions of being research speech-language pathologists. Their comments from their roles as research mentors also reflect their own evolution as speech clinicians living in the research world.
“The research mentor program provides an excellent opportunity for students to experience how fulfilling, rewarding, and exciting research can be, and to expose them to the many facets of the research world,” Halpern said. “When I first began my career, I felt that direct clinical contact was the best way to have an impact on helping individuals improve their functional communication skills. However, through my experiences as a researcher, I have learned that this is not true. I feel the program provided me with a wonderful opportunity to show students who are interested in clinical work that they can have the fulfillment of working directly with patients in a research position, and that discoveries made with these patients have an impact on improving the quality of life of many other individuals with communication disorders.”
Added Spielman, “It has been fun to see my two students going through the same experiences I did when I first began working in the lab and to be able to support them. At the moment, both of them have been searching the literature for me and summarizing acoustic analysis methods. It is great to receive their summaries and send them the ‘this is perfect’ message. I think it is the transition from ‘assistant thinker’ to ‘independent thinker’ that is crucial for the emerging researcher, and I am thrilled to participate in this development even at the most basic level.”
Did It Work?
The big question of course is…what did the students think? At the beginning of the research mentor assignment, I heard a lot of “I can’t possibly fit two more hours of anything into my schedule…” At the end of the semester, there was a range of comments: “I could do research!” “I will do a thesis!” “Research is boring!” “Research is exciting!”
A number of students shared their perspectives on the experience. Naomi Kalfon said, “Research can seem like a foreign and elitist clique that’s near to impossible to enter as a graduate student. This practicum puts research into perspective for students as something real and attainable, and enables them to see how it can fit into their lives in the future.”
“I had a negative attitude toward research before this experience, mostly because it reminded me of writing research papers at the last minute,” said Julie Bartl. “After a few dedicated hours of searching for the latest articles in my research mentor’s area of interest, I realized that research isn’t that bad if you take the time to do it! I have also learned how much I have to learn!”
Rebecca Rothenberg added, “This experience is helping me to bridge the gap between the tedium of research and the excitement of discovery and progress. I finally found an efficacy study that will help my mentor, and I can ’t wait to share it with her. Her enthusiasm is infectious.”
What did I learn from the experience? Teaching research methods is enhanced when students are having a concurrent “real world “ research experience. For example, I may teach examples of ways to analyze differences in pre- to post-treatment data and tell the students to ask their research mentors how they study differences in data. Or I may give some examples of funding sources for work in the area of child language and tell them to ask their mentors for examples of funding sources for their work. Easy “hands-on access” to a researcher seemed to help students integrate classroom-taught research information and make it real. One of my favorite comments was from the student who said, “I couldn’t believe it—when we were analyzing my research mentor’s data, we pushed the computer key and out came those ‘p values’ we had talked about in class!”
What would I change about this experience? Next year our plan is to offer the three-credit research methods course across three semesters. This will allow the students two semesters of mentored research experience (one credit per semester, simultaneous with classroom lectures). If they choose to pursue additional research, they will be encouraged to do so as a third credit of research methods in the summer session. We hope that if students begin this research practicum process earlier in their training and they have more time to integrate the experience, it might allow them to develop and complete a more independent research study, such as a thesis. The idea has been suggested to offer this experience to undergraduates, so students will have this research opportunity even earlier in their training.
The reality is that the pool of researchers and PhDs in our field is shrinking. This mentored research experience is one method of engaging all master’s degree students in the research process. Although one semester of an “in the research lab” experience will not likely radically alter the career direction of most master’s degree students, I see it as “ sowing a seed.” If we begin offering all of our students the opportunity to gain access to the passion of the researcher, it certainly will increase the likelihood that some will begin to see research with new understanding.
Students have commented that they are now looking at published research articles differently, through the eyes of someone who has played a role in a similar process. They recognize with pride that they have made a contribution to their research mentor’s program. Some of these students report that they are beginning to develop a vision of research as a part of their future professional life. For example, Rothenberg said, “I’m learning what resources are available to me as a student, a researcher, and a future clinician. It has made research much less intimidating and more of a reality for me.”
Finally, I am pleased to report that I did observe an impact on the perceived dichotomy between research and “helping people.” Many students made comments similar to those of Jenny Landry: “What amazes me about my mentor is her passion regarding her research topic and her commitment to the population she studies. I can really see how her research will help people!”
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April 2002
Volume 7, Issue 8