Arian Alai ’23 stands in a grey suit, white shirt and red and yellow tie next to Dr. Blake Colclasure, who wears a blue jacket over a white shirt and khaki pants. They hold an award that reads "Distinguished Research Abstract."
From October 6-8, Arian Alai ’23 (left) and Dr. Blake Colclasure (right), assistant professor of environmental science, attended the 2022 North Central Region American Association for Agricultural Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri. The abstract that Alai, Colclasure and Kristina Quinn ’23 wrote for their research, "Voices from Graduate School & the Workforce," was chosen as one of four distinguished papers at the conference.

Article by Liz McCue

The realization first hit Kristina Quinn ’23 and Arian Alai ’23 after the spring 2022 Mind Expo. They had just presented their research findings — qualitative research exploring the benefits that Doane graduates gain by participating in campus undergraduate research experiences (UREs) — during the day-long, annual event showcasing senior research capstones.

It’s a little meta, doing research about research. But it’s also incredibly important, in providing tangible proof of the value of UREs for students attending smaller, liberal arts institutions. The project is already making an impact on campus. During Mind Expo, multiple members of Doane’s leadership team came by to speak with Quinn and Alai, as well as Dr. Blake Colclasure, assistant professor of environmental science.

Colclasure organized the research project and received a Nebraska EPSCoR grant to fund it, which included paying Quinn and Alai, and offering a small incentive for alumni to participate. 

“After the Mind Expo, I think that’s when reality kind of hit us,” Quinn said. “It was like that ‘aha’ moment of ‘wow, this is actually something that we’ve worked hard on, and it turned out really well.’”

It’s turned out very well. In the months since Mind Expo, the trio shared their research at two conferences, garnering interest and accolades from faculty and graduate researchers at other institutions, and even an award.

Voices from Graduate School & the Workforce

Doane faculty and alumni have long praised the university’s opportunities for undergraduate research in providing students with hands-on learning and preparing them for graduate programs and careers. But it was hard to quantify those experiences to outside audiences.

Which is where the research completed by Quinn, Alai and Colclasure comes in — “Voices from Graduate School & the Workforce” or “Voices,” for short. Both Quinn and Alai are mathematics and data analysis majors, with Quinn additionally pursuing an emphasis in teaching math.

Over the course of summer and fall 2021, and spring 2022, the trio conducted and transcribed interviews with alumni, before running the interviews through data analysis software and identifying similar themes in the responses.

They found three central themes recurred throughout the interviews. Alumni reported that, because of their UREs:

  • They learned soft skills valuable to their careers or graduate work, including communication, critical thinking and problem solving, organization and project management, goal-setting and teamwork. 
  • They gained technical skills that they’ve applied to work and study post-graduation, including data analysis and coding, writing detailed lab notes, DNA extraction and more. One graduate stated they learned how to handle giant crabs as part of their URE, but they were actually very okay with not having to lean on that knowledge in their career.
  • And they found an interest in continuing research beyond their initial URE, which led to careers in research and lab work. Alumni also said they were better prepared than their peers in graduate school or even in their workplace because of the URE. 

What was it like to research, well, research?   

The “Voices” research started like most projects — by sending a lot of emails. During summer 2021, Colclasure and Quinn reached out to alumni who graduated between 2016-2020 with degrees in biology, chemistry or environmental science. Sixteen alumni, of 60 contacted, completed virtual interviews about their Doane UREs, specifically how they were impacted by their senior capstone research projects.

Initially, the research was supposed to run only through summer 2021. But that’s the thing about research — and a valuable lesson learned shared by several of the alumni interviewed — it doesn’t always go as planned. Colclasure and Quinn had recorded more than 17 hours of interviews and needed another hand to review and code them.

Which is where Alai came in, at the start of the fall 2021 semester. He had experience in using Microsoft Word for transcription, and he and Quinn knew each other from classes. He had also been looking for an additional job, and it was an easy decision to choose one that was paid, flexible time-wise and would provide an educational opportunity different from the quantitative research he had previously conducted for his major.

“The three of us used our knowledge independently and put it together to make the process go way quicker than it could have,” Alai said.

They completed the transcriptions and cleaned up the transcribed text (for example, “Doane” is almost never accurately transcribed by software, and often ends up transcribed as “Dwayne” or “Dan”) by the end of fall 2021. Then they ran the transcriptions through Max QDA, a qualitative data analysis tool, to pull out the three central themes — learning soft and technical skills, and finding or confirming an interest in research.

What’s funny is that Alai and Quinn were able to see those themes in their own experiences, too.

“What most of our participants were saying was, ‘well, we don’t have everything, but it made me get creative. It made me figure out a way,’” Quinn said. “And that’s exactly what happened with us and everything we did.”

“I feel I personally have learned so much,” she said, and felt confident heading into her own senior research project for spring 2023, and in continuing her path toward getting her master’s and eventually doctorate in education.

Alai also knew going into his senior year that he wanted to continue his education, in a statistics or data analysis master’s program, so it didn’t impact his decision to continue pursuing research experiences. But it was the first time he had experienced analyzing data on qualitative research.

“I’m used to doing quantitative analysis, and I think I’m going to stay in that realm. But it was nice to do a qualitative study,” he said, and to have that experience in his playbook.

Sharing results at Doane and elsewhere

For Alai, another valuable piece of participating in the “Voices” research was seeing the reaction of other academics. He joined Colclasure in October at the 2022 North Central Region American Association for Agricultural Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri, along with Colclasure’s fiancée and one of her students from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Quinn was unable to make it — she also serves as a high school volleyball coach and the conference fell during a peak point in the season.

While in Columbia, Alai said he only met one other undergraduate student. Other attendees were mostly faculty, or master’s or Ph.D. students. It was a different experience from Mind Expo the semester before.

“It’s kind of a different ballgame when it’s faculty they [students] don’t know and graduate students,” said Colclasure.

But overall, the experience was very positive. “Voices” was chosen as one of four distinguished papers at the conference. Doane was represented in two of the other papers chosen, as well.

Arian Alai ’23 holds the award recognizing the abstract for "Voices from Graduate School & the Workforce" as one of the distinguished papers at an October conference. Alai is wearing a grey suit and white shirt, with a colorful tie.
Arian Alai ’23 grins while holding the award recognizing the "Voices" research abstract as one of four distinguished papers at the 2022 North Central Region American Association for Agricultural Education Conference.

“What really meant a lot to me was when we were doing our distinguished presentations, I got some really good questions that showed that people cared, like they actually did find our research interesting. They saw value in doing undergraduate research,” Alai said.

Alai also got to see and discuss how others applied similar qualitative research methods to different topics — an important part of attending conferences, and a key reason why Doane faculty encourage students to experience them. They’re opportunities to network with other researchers and see different ways research methods can be applied.

The three also presented their findings at an earlier conference at Nebraska Wesleyan, in spring 2022. It was small, but a good way for Alai and Quinn to become comfortable with speaking about the research process to others. 

“When I started on this project, I didn’t expect it to go this far,” Alai said. “Seeing that, as undergrads, we got a distinguished paper at a conference with Master’s and Ph.D. level students is amazing to me. I don’t think I would have been able to do something like this at a bigger school.”