The University of New Mexico is an R1 university, a term reserved for doctoral universities with very high levels of research activity, and the only university in the state with this prestigious designation. Coming into the research community can seem like a daunting journey to undergraduates but Jennifer Chamberlin Payne’s mission is to guide them down a path to success.
Originally from New Jersey and with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s and Ph.D. in Architecture, Payne has studied the experiences of students − the low-income, underrepresented minorities, women, and first-generation students - who have historically been absent in architectural education and how they acclimate to a profession never intended for them. With that insight, she joined the UNM staff in 2016. As part of the Undergraduate Research, Arts & Design Network (URAD), Payne helps undergraduate students go beyond the minimum requirements of their degrees, to find research experiences.
“One of our primary goals at URAD is to connect undergraduate students with a faculty-mentored research experience at UNM,” Payne explained. “To be successful at that, students need to know we are here to help them. URAD has made connections with faculty and academic advisors who have been instrumental in spreading the word to undergraduates that URAD is here for them, no matter what discipline or level of experience they have in research. We are especially interested in getting those students who are often not represented in research, students like first- and second-year students, underrepresented minorities, first-gen, and low-income students, connected with opportunities at UNM.”
During Fall and Spring semesters, Payne offers Getting Started in Research workshops that help students walk through, step by step, how they can get involved in research.
“I have gotten a lot of positive feedback from student attendees, saying they feel much more confident and in control of the process, they know what to expect, and feel prepared to find a research experience at UNM. These workshops are especially helpful for students who are newer to UNM like the first- and second-year students and transfers, but they are useful for anyone who hasn’t been involved yet in research.”
Payne also offers one-on-one advising year-round, working with students to learn about their goals and motivations for conducting research and walk them through the process of finding potential faculty to reach out to.
“It is helpful if they previously attended a Getting Started in Research workshop before we sit down one-on-one, so we can just dive in directly to their unique circumstances, but it isn’t mandatory.”
Payne believes creativity, compassion, and analytical skills are integral to helping students.
“Every student is unique, and I try my best to meet them where they are and support them in meeting whatever goals they have set for themselves. Sometimes I help students identify that the skills they are really looking to build may be found outside of research, in other extracurricular activities, like an internship or volunteering. When students come to me for advising, I tailor each conversation to that particular student, asking targeted questions about their life, their expectations, their goals. It is not a one-size-fits-all approach for me when I work with students.”
Payne points to UNM undergrad Meg Honnold as one of her success stories.
“I meet a lot of students when I am tabling for the new student orientations every week during the summer as well as during Welcome Back Days but Meg Honnold stood out,” Payne recalled. “She followed up with me to participate in a Getting Started in Research workshop and had a lot of great questions and so we met for a follow-up advising session to get her started on finding a faculty mentor to guide her research interests in the home-schooling movement. I shared with her information about funding available for Arts & Sciences students conducting research in ASSURE and by the next semester, she was working with a faculty mentor in the Sociology department and getting funded through the ASSURE program.”
Honnold continued to meet with Payne about preparations for presenting at the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference later that spring and they still meet to discuss her next steps to apply for graduate schools and other conferences nationwide to present her research.
“Jennifer has repeatedly extended her time, her expertise, and her interest in ways that have critically shaped my academic journey,” Honnold said. “From offering edits and feedback to answering my many questions ranging from research to graduate school, to reminding me to take breaks, she has become a pivotal mentor who makes the educational journey simpler and more effective. She has steered me toward opportunities I would not otherwise have found, including the ASSURE scholarship and UROC. Most impactful is that she genuinely wants to see me, and other students succeed, both academically and personally.”
Many students Payne meets are referred to URAD by their academic advisor or faculty in class. Maria Nava, a second-year Biology major, who had multiple research interests in the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, as well as evolution, was interested in graduate school. She and Payne talked in depth about her research interests, looking at potential faculty matches for her in Biology and the School of Medicine and how she might be a good candidate for various research programs. After considering the research program options available to her, Nava applied to and was accepted by the McNair Scholars program, which will support her research and upcoming applications to graduate schools nationwide.
“For all the students I work with, I offer further follow-up guidance as they need it," Payne noted. "For instance, when they need to compose professional emails to faculty they are interested in working with, I can proofread those emails to help them be as concise and compelling as possible. Or sometimes they need more advice on meeting with a potential faculty mentor, so I will walk them through what to prepare and what to expect. I want to help these students in any way that I can to secure research experiences, as I know how transformative and helpful they can be to a student’s development.”
Payne advises students that it’s best to approach opportunities with an open mind and start talking to faculty members now and suggested they go to their office hours to ask them about the research that they do and talk about your interests.
“Don’t be too rigid about what topics you want to explore because no matter what you decide to study, you will build valuable skills that will improve your chances for getting into graduate school, medical school or landing a job out of college. It’s most important that you get started and take advantage of the many opportunities available at UNM sooner rather than later,” she counseled.
Faculty don’t always advertise the research opportunities that they have for undergraduates, which is why it is important that students take the initiative to ask faculty about their research.
“It can sometimes feel intimidating for students to approach faculty,” Payne acknowledged. “But they are there to help students make the most of their educations, which includes getting research experience. Attending a workshop or advising with URAD can help build your confidence to talk to faculty and seek out these opportunities.”
There are many research opportunities out there in all disciplines, not just those found in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), Payne emphasized. The recent UROC conference presentations covered a huge range of topics, from the Social Sciences, Medicine, STEM, Education, Business, and the Humanities.
Students interested in getting started in research, or even if they’re not positive they want to do research, should reach out to Payne and URAD for help.
“Let’s get you started! It’s never too early to start thinking about research and there are many opportunities at UNM to get involved,” Payne noted.
Students never know where their undergraduate research experience might take them.
“As an undergraduate in Psychology, I was very interested in neuroscience and worked on a research project with a neuropsychologist at a local hospital," said Payne. "Looking back on that experience, I can see that I reaped so many benefits from it: It gave me a way to dive into a subject I was curious about, to get hands-on experience, to present at a professional conference, and to get published in a peer-reviewed journal.
"Even though my interests changed over the years after I graduated, that research experience helped me secure my first job out of college and it opened up a lot of possibilities for me that I could not have anticipated. I am excited to be a part of URAD to help UNM students explore the possibilities of getting involved in research to see where it may take them.”