Preparing the Region's future leaders with hands-on experience

IU Northwest's lab innovations are getting underclassmen involved in research early

While most education experts would agree that there are few better ways to learn than to see the principles and theories of a particular discipline put into practice through hands-on work, most university students looking to gain valuable laboratory and research experience usually have to wait until their senior year or even their graduate programs for such an opportunity.

But at Indiana University Northwest, students such as Maha Alshamaileh, a freshman psychology major from Munster, are getting a jump on that standard by participating in hands-on research now — giving them greater insight into the research process and an early peek into future career opportunities.

Looking to eventually get into a physician’s assistant program, Maha knows she has plenty of science courses to take, which is why she’s grateful to be able to get a better feel for what’s ahead so early in her time at IU Northwest.

“It’s interesting to see the connection between lab reports and scientific papers and to apply what I’m doing in class to what happens in the lab,” she said. “It helps put things in perspective.”

Maha learned about the opportunity for hands-on lab work during a presentation in her freshman seminar from Dr. Maureen Rutherford, chair and associate professor of Psychology. Dr. Rutherford and her students study the effect of drugs and environmental stressors on the physiological and behavioral expression of stress responses in the zebrafish. The ultimate goal is to gain a better understanding of vulnerability to stress-related conditions, such as anxiety disorders, research that has real-world applications and findings.

Dr. Rutherford started the lab in 2017 and annually has a group of seniors who do research as part of a course she teaches. However, she was recently able to restructure and expand the lab experience thanks to funding the campus received from a $5 million grant from the Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and Articulation Program at the U.S. Department of Education. IU Northwest became eligible for the grant in 2021, when it was recognized as an HSI for its diversity, including a student body that is 26 percent Hispanic.

“The grant allows more students to do research by developing an internship program for first-year students,” Dr. Rutherford said. “In addition to the usual lab class, we can now have 12 to 15 students per year learning skills that will allow them to conduct their own research. It creates a more sustainable research program that involves more students at all educational stages.”

By changing how she involves students in the research process, Dr. Rutherford can extend learning opportunities for students as they continue with her throughout their time at IU Northwest. In the process, they learn valuable leadership skills, with the more seasoned students mentoring their newer peers.

“We used to throw everything at the students in one or two semesters,” Dr. Rutherford said. “This allows us instead to build that knowledge and experience over time and have the students apply it to the areas that they’re most interested in.”

Dr. Rutherford has also used some of the grant money to extend this lab opportunity to Ivy Tech students who take classes on the IU Northwest campus. In addition, she has been able to purchase new technology that will further assist the lab work and findings. It’s the kind of handson work she believes will prove extremely valuable to all of her students, regardless of what they go on to do in their academic or professional careers.

“Research, in general, is known as a high impact practice, and the handson experience helps students connect what they’re learning in the classroom with real-world problems and practical issues,” she says. “As they go through the program, they’re learning more about the scientific process and really getting deep into developing critical thinking skills and learning about the ins and outs of research.

"Even if they don’t go into a career in research, it’s important for them to be able to evaluate information from a variety of sources and get handson training with a variety of techniques in the lab. And on top of all of that, they’re learning collaboration and time-management skills, and they’re building a community with the campus, with me and with each other.”

While research opportunities like this occur often on the IU Northwest campus, they’re still something of a rarity on many other higher education campuses. And thanks to Dr. Rutherford’s efforts and the help of the HSI grant, more and more bright young IU Northwest students such as Maha will be able to take this kind of practical learning and innovation into the community and the world in the years to come.