Hands-on research gives students in UAB Crime REU program opportunities

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One of the first things Kent Kerley, Ph.D., expressed to his UAB Crime Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) Summer Research Program students this summer was how fortunate they were to have an opportunity to conduct real-life, hands-on research.

Kent Kerley directs the UAB Crime REU program — an eight-week National Science Foundation program designed for undergraduate students to conduct hands-on research.

“I told them my story — that I spent my summers as an undergraduate working at Subway,” says Kerley, associate professor of Justice Sciences and the UAB Crime REU program director. “Making sandwiches for minimum wage doesn’t really prepare you for graduate school. This REU program is a fantastic opportunity, and they realize that.”

UAB’s Crime REU is an eight-week National Science Foundation (NSF) program designed for undergraduate students to conduct hands-on research; it’s for those interested in pursuing post-graduate degrees in the computer sciences, forensic sciences, and social sciences. The NSF funded UAB’s program for a three-year period at a total of $333,000.

The interdisciplinary program, which consists of faculty from the Department of Justice Sciences and the Department of Computer & Information Sciences, is divided into three tracks. Gary Warner and Chengcui Zhang, Ph.D., are mentors of the Computer Forensics track; Heith Copes, Ph.D., Kathryn Morgan, Ph.D., and Kerley are mentors of the Criminal Justice Track; and Elizabeth Gardner, Ph.D., and Jason Linville, Ph.D., are mentors of the Forensic Science track. The seven REU faculty members are nationally recognized for their expertise in working with large data sets, data mining and manipulation, quantitative and qualitative data analysis, and DNA analysis.

The students involved in the prestigious program apply and are awarded an opportunity to study at an institution of very high research activity like UAB, with benefits including a stipend, free housing, free food and access to the Campus Rec Center and on-campus libraries.

The program is targeted to undergraduate students from underrepresented groups, including non-research universities and universities with a higher percentage of racial and ethnic minority populations throughout the United States.

“We’re trying to give students the opportunity to do research who might not otherwise have it at their home universities,” Kerley says. “In the process, we’re trying to encourage them to attend graduate school in these different fields.”

Only 12 students are selected to be a part of the program, which is in its second year. More than 70 students applied for the 12 spots in 2010. More than 160 applied this year, which shows the growth in popularity of the program after just one year.

This year’s students make up a diverse group: Majors represented include biology, chemistry, criminal justice, computer information systems, computer science, engineering, psychology and sociology. The program originally was intended to target students from the Southeast, but this year’s class also has six students from outside the South, including attendees from California, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota and New York.

Real data collection, real analysis

What makes UAB’s Crime REU program unique is that students are able to do real data collection and analysis. Normally when students take a research methods class, they are not able to engage in any real data collection for several reasons; lack of time and money are two of the biggest. If they do gather data it’s not high quality and they can’t publish from it. And, they often perform simulations and don’t really learn how to use various research techniques and skills.

UAB Crime REU students receive hands-on experience in every facet of research.

“There’s a big difference between students reading a book in chemistry class about GC-MS (gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy) or watching a YouTube video on DNA analysis and what we do here,” Kerley says. “For students to do these things with the guidance of a professor is huge. It prepares them well for graduate school. And it prepares them well for their careers. We’re giving them the tools they need to be accepted and even funded in top graduate schools.”

Missy Toms, an undergraduate at Northern Kentucky University, has spent the summer working with Gardner to identify chemicals found in what experts call legal highs — alleged psychoactive substances she legally purchased online. Their research is critical because without a lab, there is no way to know what really is in these drugs.

“It’s been fantastic,” Toms says. “The work is really interesting and the projects are more interesting than I could have hoped for. The program has actually exceeded my expectations.”

The computer forensics students had an opportunity to go to the FBI field office to conduct a presentation for agents on Iranian hackers after they uncovered information about nefarious computer activities.

“Where else are undergraduate students going to have access to this data, analyze the data, and prepare a report to present to the FBI,” Kerley says. “It’s pretty impressive.”

The students in Kerley’s group worked with The Lovelady Center — a faith-based treatment facility in Birmingham — where they performed quantitative and qualitative research. The students picked a specific area of focus and wrote a literature review on different topics. They designed and conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with women who had a history of drug and alcohol addiction. They analyzed the data and prepared a final presentation.

“We’re really interested in their recovery stories,” Kerley says. “We want to understand their whole lived experience with drugs, their religious and family backgrounds and how they perceive the Lovelady Center can help them recover. And what are they going to do to keep from relapsing? The relapse rate is high for most treatment facilities, including those that are faith-based. We want to know what in their minds makes them different from people who won’t make it.”

“It’s in-depth, qualitative research,” he says. “It’s interesting to dig in and hear the narratives and to try to make sense of their stories.”

Kerley’s students submitted an abstract of their research for a conference in Nashville in the fall while they were here, and two of them will give a major presentation on their findings for the first time. That’s something that’s typical in each of the three research areas of the UAB Crime REU program.

“We’ve already had one publication from our criminal justice project from the summer of 2010, and we’re hoping to get at least one more from then and a couple from this year, as well,” Kerley says.

Next summer is the end of the NSF grant for the program, but Kerley says the group will apply for an extension of at least three more years. He says that while there may be modifications, real research work will continue to get done.

“We’re cramming a lot into a two-month time period, but we’ve got students who are very talented, and we’ve got talented faculty members working with them every day,” Kerley says. “It’s really compressed, but it is amazing what you can accomplish when you have a great team.”