IF Annette Ludwig ever develops a biodegradable plastic that helps save the earth from inundation by waste, the world can credit the interest she developed in scientific research as a college undergraduate. Miss Ludwig, a senior in biology at James Madison University in Harrisburg, Va., is among a growing number of undergraduate students who are undertaking original research at the college level.
Working with faculty mentors, students in a wide variety of fields in the sciences and humanities are reaching beyond traditional undergraduate education to partake in the world of scholarly research. At a time when American universities face a severe shortage in faculty candidates, and as industry finds it increasingly difficult to fill top research positions, there are signs that exposure to research in undergraduate years is encouraging students to continue on to graduate school.
Ludwig is a case in point. Given her interest in biology, she had decided to pursue a premed course more or less by default. ``It was the thing for someone like me,'' she says, ``I just always figured I'd be a doctor.''
But as part of her school's honors program, Ludwig had to write a thesis. Working with professor-mentor Douglas Dennis on a revolutionary type of biodegradable plastic, she soon became interested in a career in academic research.
The result? Next fall she will enter the graduate microbiology program at Rutgers University, where she hopes to study under a microbiologist who is developing an organism that eats up spilled oil.
Ludwig was one of more than 1,200 undergraduate student researchers from all disciplines, their mentors, and other supporters who converged last month at Trinity University here to share research results and peer into other fields. Only the third such national meeting of its kind, this year's ``EUREKA'' conference - which stands for Excellence in Undergraduate Research: Experience, Knowledge, and Achievement - underscores the recent growth in research at the undergraduate level.
The first EUREKA conference, considered a trial in 1987 by its organizers at the University of North Carolina in Asheville, drew 500 participants, of whom 250 were students with research to present. That number grew to 450 last year, and this year more than 680 students from 46 states and Puerto Rico gave either oral or written ``poster'' presentations.
Topics included ``Computer simulation of galactic collisions''; ``Conceptual design for fuel saving rocket engine system for manned space operations''; ``The question of litigation in modern Japan''; ``Progress on the total synthesis of the elm bark beetle pheromone''; and ``USA Today: More than junk-food journalism?''
``The conference has really been great,'' Ludwig says. ``Some of the presentations have been pretty amazing, and humbling,'' she adds. ``It makes you want to go back to your own lab and do more.''
That's the kind of enthusiasm supporters of undergraduate research say is needed to direct more top-flight students into graduate work and careers in research.
``There's no question that early research stimulates young people to go on to take positions in academia and industry that are opening up,'' says Michael Doyle, a professor of organic chemistry at Trinity University and chairman of this year's conference. ``We're heading for significant shortfalls in faculty members and in industry, so it's crucial that we develop programs to turn the tide.''
The statistics are stark.
More than one-third of college faculty in the United States are over age 50; forecasters predict they will retire in large numbers in the mid-'90s through the early part of the next century, just as universities experience a boomlet in enrollments.
Observers say it is not so much a problem of quantity, since the number of doctoral degrees granted has remained relatively constant. Despite shortages already being felt in such fields as engineering and computer science, the concern is generally over quality: During the past two decades, a growing proportion of top academic achievers has turned away from careers in research to business, law, and medicine.
In addition, a growing share of US doctoral degrees, especially in the sciences, has been taken by foreign students (see graph at left).
``In my own field of chemistry,'' says Dr. Doyle, ``the percentage of PhDs going to foreign nationals has increased from 15 percent in 1970 to more than 30 percent now.'' The statistics raise questions of US competitiveness in the global market, Doyle adds.
``It is not a European problem,'' he says. ``The [West] Germans have an excess of talented students entering scientific research. Likewise, it is not a Japanese problem.'' West Germany, with roughly one-fourth of the population of the US, is turning out as many chemists as the United States is turning out American-born chemists.
``Chemistry is one of the few categories where we have a positive balance of trade,'' says Paul Gassman, president-elect of the American Chemical Society. ``And we're losing our ability to compete.''
But Dr. Gassman is not sitting idly by. A professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota's main Minneapolis campus, he accepts undergraduates in his labs in order to guide them in their research.
``It's really enjoyable working with them - you see so much more progress,'' he says.
The participation of top faculty mentors is perhaps the key to successful undergraduate research.
Debbie Frederick, a senior biology major at Trinity, says it was very much the enthusiasm - and availability - of her mentor that led her to seek a future in genetics research.
``It takes someone to sit you down and explain what graduate school is and how it works,'' says Miss Frederick. ``Before working with Dr. [William] Stone, I didn't know what was out there and available to me.
``I saw how much he enjoys what he does,'' she says. ``That's what attracted me to a career of research and teaching.''
Despite such enthusiasm, support for the concept of undergraduate research is not universal. Some large public and private research universities have been reluctant to share resources with undergraduates.
And even though the National Science Foundation provides some funding for undergraduate research, some scientists believe that research is better left to graduate students. Others warn that research can steer undergraduates toward a specialization too soon.
Still, supporters tout research as a means of reinvigorating undergraduate education and helping to solve some dawning national challenges at the same time.
``Everyone is calling for more active involvement of undergraduates in their education, and closer student-faculty ties,'' says Lesley Cafarelli, director of educational development programs at the University of Minnesota and a member of the governing board of the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research.
``We're finding that undergraduate research accomplishes both goals,'' says Dr. Cafarelli. ``And if their participation leads more bright students into filling some of the shortages we're going to be facing, then so much the better.''