Most professors are happy to hold a student's focus for a full class period. When Gretchen Holtgrefe heard chemistry and biochemistry professor Ajit Sharma's lecture last summer, he grabbed her attention and still has it.
Holtgrefe was a high school senior from Erie, Pennsylvania, visiting Central Michigan University for a weeklong Medical Laboratory Science Summer Camp as a member of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, a national youth leadership development organization supported by the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.
After Sharma's lecture, she thought: "If all the professors here teach as well as he does, I think I'm in for a pretty good experience."
Today, she's preparing to start her sophomore year at Central as a biochemistry major, having finished her freshman year doing research under Sharma's tutelage.
That's the ideal outcome for Sharma and Jon Baker, director of the Mount Pleasant Sea Cadets unit and director of laboratories at Sparrow Health System in Lansing. They partnered on bringing the national program to CMU three years ago.
For them, it's about introducing precollege cadets to many opportunities in STEM fields. For Sharma, he found a freshman researcher.
"Being able to do cancer research at only 19 years old is amazing," says CMU sophomore Gretchen Holtgrefe.
Research experience is powerful
Being able to do research as a freshman is what sealed the deal for Holtgrefe. That and winning a Centralis Scholarship.
"Yes, I could have the 'name' of a larger university, but how many people get to do research as an undergraduate?" she asked rhetorically. She said students' research experiences matter more than the name of their undergraduate university.
"When grad schools get someone from CMU, they know the student can do the research. CMU gives you the experiences you need to prepare you for your future."
'Let the fire burn by itself'
Sharma said professors at conferences tell him they consider research experience above GPA, and graduating CMU seniors say having done research helped them get into graduate school.
"It teaches students how to think outside the box, to evaluate data, to be critical thinkers," he said.
To spur critical thinking, Sharma gives his students freedom to try their own ideas.
"When they give their own opinions and have good reasons and I say 'very good, you have now become a researcher,' you can see the change. They become confident. And I learn a lot from that, too.
"I was told a long time ago that the main function of a teacher is to just start the spark and let the spark start the fire in the student, and let the fire burn by itself."
Holtgrefe's fire kindled from a desire to find out which antioxidants are more effective than others in preventing cancer.
"It's very difficult to do. I've learned a lot of lab skills," she said.
"Being able to do cancer research at only 19 years old is amazing. Not only does it look good on graduate school applications, but you also get to make a really big difference."