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Taylor Wolf was seeking a lab experience to complement her studies and wound up discovering her life’s passion.
“Research is my thing,” said Wolf, a fourth-year biochemistry major from Norwich, N.Y., who is working on a research project in infectious disease. “I like the problem-solving aspect. You’re engaged, you’re involved, and you learn things that you never set out to learn.”
It’s an experience RIT is encouraging more and more students to incorporate into their undergraduate years, an extension of the university’s commitment that every student be engaged in some form of experiential learning, be it through a co-op assignment, senior labs, capstone or independent research project. Experiential learning has many benefits, from teaching students independent thinking in a collaborative environment, to nurturing mentorships that help develop careers.
It’s a commitment RIT feels so strongly about that it’s been written in to the 2025 Strategic Plan, “Greatness Through Difference.“
“A cornerstone of our strategic plan is the concept of being a ‘student-centered research university,’” said Ryne Raffaelle, RIT’s vice president for research and associate provost. “One important metric to us as a university is how many of our students present at our annual undergraduate research symposium. The good news is that this number continues to grow steadily. This year, we had the largest number of presenters, with 313 authors giving 235 presentations.”
RIT is growing as a research university, and undergraduate participation in that growth is part of the formula, fueled by increased funding from the National Science Foundation and National Institutes for Health, as well as increased proposals for future funding, that make more opportunities available, Raffaelle said.
RIT is also building its research infrastructure, with $5 million invested in five signature interdisciplinary research areas.
“Areas were chosen in which RIT can be an international leader in helping to make progress on some of the biggest challenges facing society today,” Raffaelle said. “One of the specific criteria used to determine these areas was the extent to which undergraduate students would be involved in the research.”
Engagement in research is also essential to their complete education.
“We believe it is extremely important for students to learn how to be scientists and mathematicians from Day One,” said Sophia Maggelakis, dean of the College of Science. “The classroom teaching gives students the tools that they need, the fundamentals, but if we do not teach them how to practice it and do the research and analysis that is required to discover new knowledge, I don’t think we have done our job.”
Research, especially when conducted in interdisciplinary teams, teaches students valuable skills, said James Winebrake, dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
“Mastery of critical thinking, communication and collaborative problem solving skills are important for students who wish to become leaders in today’s interconnected world,” Winebrake said.
The emphasis on becoming a research university requires faculty to balance research pursuits with their teaching responsibilities, said Scott Williams, professor in the School of Chemistry and Materials Science. This means undergraduate researchers have more opportunities to become independent researchers themselves.
A small army of 17 students drives Williams’ research areas. Wolf leads his drug quality assurance group, which is affiliated with the RIT-Rochester Regional Health Alliance.
Wolf has contributed research that can verify the components of the drug cocktail used in the treatment of tuberculosis, the leading infectious disease worldwide.
She cites a 2014 World Health Organization Global TB Report which found that 480,000 people had developed multi-drug resistant TB and 190,000 had died from the drug-resistant disease.
The simple test Wolf developed identifies substandard and counterfeit pharmaceuticals, purporting to contain Streptomycin, a frontline antibiotic in the treatment of TB. Her research could lead to reduced TB-related deaths and multi-drug resistance in developing countries.
“We took this test further than where we thought we’d be able to and there was a moment where everything fell together in an unexpected way,” she said.
Williams is a mentor to many of his students and former students. Wolf credits him with helping her land opportunities that she otherwise wouldn’t have had—such as presenting her work at regional chapter meetings of the American Chemical Society and at the National Undergraduate Research Symposium at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Tennessee, and co-writing a paper on her research findings.
The role of a mentor is an important component to the research experience, said Anne Haake, dean of the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences.
“The individual attention and guidance necessary to carry out research can make a real difference to the educational experience,” Haake said.
“One of the most important experiences I’ve gotten from RIT has been the undergraduate research by far,” Wolf said. “It’s given me so many opportunities, to travel, to make friends, to practice my science, to contribute to my science and just really understand as a whole, why I’m here and why it matters.”
To learn more about this research, go to bit.ly/ResearchWolf.
RIT undergraduates are engaged in a wide variety of research experiences. Here are just a few examples: