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Early Innovation: The Freshman Research Initiative

Giving News

A popular program turns students’ traditional first year on its head

Freshman Research Initiative - FRI“If you had told me in high school that in two years I would be doing top-of-the-line, cutting-edge research in astrophysics, I would have called you a liar,” says computer science major Sean Moorhead, a participant in UT’s enormously successful Freshman Research Initiative, or FRI as it is commonly known.

Started in 2005 in the College of Natural Sciences, FRI is turning students like Moorhead into innovators by putting them in advanced research labs at the beginning of their educational experience rather than at the end.

Originally introduced in biology and chemistry, FRI has expanded to 30 faculty-led research streams, working on real-world applications in biosciences as well as in physics, astronomy, math, and computer science. The program has grown to serve more than 700 first-year students each year, a third of each incoming class of natural sciences majors.

FRI provides an authentic research experience and in the process a richer college experience. Mentored by faculty and graduate students, freshmen conduct and contribute to modern science by designing experiments, performing data analyses, and publishing peer-reviewed papers. Perhaps best of all, students who participate in FRI graduate with a science or math degree at a 35 percent higher rate than their non-FRI peers. Participants also have higher GPAs and earn more scholarships than other natural sciences students.

pre-med major Christy Portales

Click the image to see a video of pre-med major Christy Portales talking about her experience in the Freshman Research Initiative.

The sheer variety of FRI options can be overwhelming initially, says pre-med major Christy Portales. “But that’s what thrills me the most, the fact that there are so many things being done at the same place. I started by exploring ways to grow switchgrass, which is used to produce biofuels. And now I’m researching antibiotics. FRI accelerated the process of my becoming a scientist.”

In the past year, biochemistry professor Andy Ellington and colleagues on the computer science faculty pioneered a new FRI stream, the DIY Disease Diagnostics Stream. Freshmen will be trained in methodologies that will enable them to develop self-test diagnostics, which are expected in coming years to increasingly empower individuals in medical decision-making.

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Click the "Make a Gift" button to give to the Freshman Research Initiative.

Along the way students will learn about laboratory robotics and interact with computer scientists, who will help automate the delivery of diagnostics. The new stream was made possible by a gift from Bob O’Rear as well as the involvement of the Gates Foundation.

“I really believe that all education is self-education, and so all I really want are students who are excited enough to go and learn for themselves,” Ellington says. “I can guide them and direct them, and I can save them some time, but mostly I’m looking for them to come in and be excited. And if they do that, the rest is easy.”


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