Standout student puts spotlight on UK's undergraduate research

Lesley Mann is one of those students universities wine and dine to lure into their research laboratories.

Mann, a University of Kentucky senior, has become such a standout in UK's prominent agriculture biotechnology program that she's England-bound for a year as a prestigious Gates Cambridge scholar at the University of Cambridge.

She's been wooed by the likes of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who want her as a Ph.D. student in 2011. In fact, she recently had to skip out on a wine-tasting expedition in California with other potential Stanford recruits so she could fly back to Lexington to be honored during a timeout at the March 7 UK basketball game.

"I wouldn't miss that for the world," she said.

Along the way, Mann has become a poster-student for UK's growing focus on undergraduate research. It's less visible than graduate students' research efforts, which are closely tracked as part of UK's pursuit of Top 20 status. But opportunities for undergrads from all disciplines to conduct research are becoming big selling points for students, faculty and UK's reputation.

"A lot of people are surprised about how much an undergraduate can do on this campus," said Mann, who for the last two years has been president of the Society for the Promotion of Undergraduate Research, or SPUR. She said it was the key reason she chose UK after graduating at 16 from McLean County High School in 2006.

"I knew I wanted to get involved in research and have a really strong science foundation," Mann said. "They convinced me that UK is a research institution and faculty are always looking for students to be involved in the lab. So I would have limitless opportunities."

Mann started at UK in biology. But after a tip from her best friend, Laura Crawford — a neuroscience major from Corbin — Mann gravitated toward the agriculture biotechnology program in UK's College of Agriculture.

It was an unexpected, yet natural move for Mann, whose family owns a chicken farm in McLean County.

"I thought when I went to college, it would be getting off the farm," she said, then laughed. "So it's actually completely ironic."

Robert L. Houtz, a professor of horticulture, said the ag biotech program is just for undergrads and has 160 students, many of whom have gone on to have published research papers they co-authored.

"They truly are these aggressive overachievers," he said. "Lesley exemplifies everything about the students in the program."

Mann has worked in the lab with Christopher L. Schardl, UK's Harry E. Wheeler chair in plant mycology. The research has investigated ways to improve a type of grass — Kentucky 31 tall fescue — so that it maintains its durability and drought resistance but will no longer pass along toxins to grazing animals, such as sheep and cattle.

Her work on the project scored Mann an undergraduate research grant through the Beckman Scholars Program, which is funded by the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation. Mann is one of three UK students this year with one of those $19,300 scholarship grants.

Another Beckman scholar is Crawford, who is researching molecules that inhibit growth of neurons after someone sustains a spinal cord injury.

Those two best friends, who met their freshman year in the honors dorm, have become two of UK's strongest advocates for undergraduate research as officers of SPUR.

The group mentors younger undergraduates about how to get involved in research efforts by preparing them to pitch ideas to faculty members, drilling them with questions those professors are likely to ask and creating professional presentations.

"I know when I came in, I was really nervous about contacting a faculty member. We try to help them be comfortable," said Crawford, SPUR's vice president. She has since presented her work to surgeons and experts from across the country in California at last year's National Neurotrauma Society conference.

The centerpiece of SPUR, which formed in 2004, is an annual showcase of undergraduate research projects — a kind of science fair on steroids. This year's will be held at the Student Center on April 28.

As many as 200 projects and performances could be on display, topping last year's record of 150, said Evie Russell, SPUR's adviser and a program coordinator in the office of undergraduate education.

The research isn't just science-based. For example, Lisa Woods, a theater major who graduated in 2008, researched 19th-century dressmaking. She then designed a dress and put on a one-woman play about American poet Emily Dickinson at area high schools, Russell said.

The increasing profile of undergraduate research at UK is part of the legacy Mann will leave behind when she graduates in May, Russell said.

"She is the most energetic, dynamic undergraduate I have ever worked with and I work with a lot of outstanding students," Russell said. "She's a rare find."

Mann gives credit to her family, who shuttled her to academic camps at Western Kentucky University or the library in Owensboro because McLean County is one of four Kentucky counties that doesn't have its own.

She hopes to return to Western Kentucky one day. As a side-project, Mann has been working on ways to recycle chicken waste. Finding ways to build businesses upon that kind of science is an interest of hers, something she'll pursue at Cambridge and, later, at MIT, which she chose over Stanford.

"I would one day like to be called an eco-entrepreneur, kind of a new term that's been coined," she said. "I don't know how that's going to look, yet. But that's the beauty of the career."