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Undergraduate Research
In Good Company
JMU among nation's top 35 colleges in undergraduate research


JMU biology Professor Reid N. Harris oversees the collection of bacteria from a salamander by research technician Mary Alice Simon and undergraduate biology student Emily Andr้ (right).

You are known by the company you keep, your mother might have told you.

In August, James Madison University found itself in the company with some the nation's collegiate academic heavy-hitters — schools like Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Duke, Georgia Tech, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Oberlin, Princeton, Stanford, SUNY-Stony Brook, Swarthmore, California-Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan, Texas, Wisconsin.

In the 2007 America's Best Colleges guide, the well-regarded survey of U.S. colleges published annually by U.S.News & World Report, James Madison is listed along with those 17 colleges and 17 others for offering academic "Programs to Look For" in undergraduate research.

James Madison was one of 12 public colleges among the 35 institutions overall from across the country spotlighted for excellence in "undergraduate research/creative projects" opportunities for students earning bachelor's degrees. In such programs, undergraduates — working independently or in small teams and mentored by faculty — conduct intensive and self-directed research or creative work that is presented on or off campus.

JMU, a predominantly undergraduate university with 30 master's and five doctoral programs, places a strong emphasis on undergraduate research and has encouraged such "learning by doing" study for its bachelor's-level students in all academic areas for many years.

"It is not unusual for our undergraduate students to be co-authors on national conference presentations and publications," said Dr. A. Jerry Benson, dean of the JMU College of Integrated Science and Technology. "We constantly hear from other institutions that our students who go there for graduate work have had research experiences at the undergraduate level comparable to master's-level experiences at their institution."

Benson added that the majority of CISAT academic programs are professional preparation programs, and that CISAT encourages and supports strategic alliances with private- and public-sector entities. Examples of undergraduate research in CISAT include student-research teams working with the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and students working in the areas of wind energy and alternative fuels for vehicles.

"The undergraduate research and service/project experiences prepare our students to enter their first position running," Benson said.

The "hands-on" research learning experiences at James Madison are significant in preparing students for doctoral-level study and research as well as for jobs.

"JMU is ninth in the number of graduates earning Ph.D.s in the physical sciences and 13th in the life sciences among baccalaureate and master's degree institutions," said Dr. David F. Brakke, citing a National Science Foundation summary for 1999-2004. Brakke, dean of the JMU College of Science and Mathematics, added that JMU's programs in the physical and life sciences have expanded in the past seven years and he expects JMU's ranking among Ph.D. producers will rise.

JMU's department of chemistry held its 33rd undergraduate research symposium in 2006; the department was the first at JMU to offer an undergraduate summer research experience program, which received its first National Science Foundation funding 14 years ago. Other NSF-funded summer programs have followed in biology, mathematics, materials science and an international program in Ghana.

"We have had as many as five (NSF-Research Experiences for Undergraduates) programs at one time," Brakke said. "Very few universities have two or more."

Both deans pointed to JMU's excellent facilities — including a new building for chemistry and physics that opened in the past year — and equipment available to students for study and research, as well as "creative" faculty who are "high-quality teachers" interested in working with undergraduates in research.

"Visitors to campus from the NSF and professional organizations are impressed and amazed at the level of undergraduate research being conducted, both in terms of quality and the number of students involved," Brakke said.

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U.S.News & World Reports' "Programs to Look For"
Undergraduate Research / Creative Projects
(35 colleges; 12 public colleges)

Allegheny College (Pa.)
California Institute of Technology
* Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo
Carleton College (Minn.)
Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.)
College of Wooster (Ohio)
Cornell University (NY)
Davidson College (NC)
DePauw University (Ind.)
Duke University (N.C.)
Elon University (N.C.)
Furman University (S.C.)
* Georgia Institute of Technology
Grinnell College (Iowa)
Harvard University (Mass.)
Harvey Mudd College (Calif.)
Hope College (Mich.)

* James Madison University (Va.)
Johns Hopkins University (Md.)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Oberlin College
Princeton University (N.J.)
Reed College (Oregon)
Stanford University (Calif.)
* SUNY-Stony Brook
Swarthmore College (Pa.)
* Truman State University (Mo.)
* University of California-Berkeley
* University of California-Los Angeles
* University of Delaware
* University of Michigan-Ann Arbor
* University of North Carolina-Asheville
University of Richmond (Va.)
* University of Texas-Austin
* University of Wisconsin-Madison

(listed alphabetically by U.S. News; no rankings made)
(public colleges marked with *)

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