Every summer, nearly 100 undergraduates from around the country engage in research experiences at Washington State University, working hands-on with faculty mentors on a wide variety of projects.

Shelley Pressley, associate research professor at Voiland College and WSU’s director of undergraduate research, leads WSU’s summer research program. She recently spoke with us about teaching and conducting research at WSU.

What do you teach?

This fall, I’m teaching UNIV 104 and UNIV 199. Both of these courses are designed for incoming freshman that want to learn how to get started in research.

They are preparatory courses to give students the basic skills needed to conduct undergraduate research. The courses also help them discover what kind of research interests them.

Why do you like teaching?

Shelley Pressley and Mercedes Winfrey pose next to a research poster.
Shelley Pressley with summer research student Mercedes Winfrey.

When I first went to college, I didn’t know I wanted to be a teacher. If you had told me back then that I would end up teaching at a university, I would have said, “No way!”

I discovered that the most rewarding part of teaching is interacting with students. Many of the decisions we make in our life can have such long-term impacts on where we end up going and what we end up doing. I feel like I can help students understand how to navigate their college life so that they can become involved and engaged now, as opposed to graduating in four years and looking back and realizing they could have done so much more.

I really enjoy meeting students on a more personal level and getting to know them – including their backgrounds and their future goals. Students have so many great ideas and they are so motivated and driven to make a difference in the world.

There is nothing better than to hear from a student who took one of my classes or workshops and then went on to pursue research and fell in love with it.

Why do you teach and conduct research at WSU?

I came to WSU to get a master’s degree in Environmental Engineering. That led to a Ph.D., and that led to a postdoc, and that eventually led to a research faculty position.

I realized through that process how much I enjoyed the research. Along the way I started a family and I fell in love with the Palouse. I also really enjoy the group of faculty that I work closely with in the Laboratory for Atmospheric Research. It’s one of the best group of co-workers I’ve ever been involved with.

Tell us about WSU’s summer research programs.

For students hoping to pursue research in the future, getting training as an undergraduate is important. Participants get to experience what graduate school might be like and determine if they are suited to a research-oriented career. More immediately, students expand their resumes and get a feel for different types of careers.

WSU’s summer research programs allow you to live, learn, breathe, eat and sleep research. The summer programs emphasize important components of undergraduate research – mentoring by faculty, originality of work, use of methods accepted and normal within the particular discipline and sharing of project processes and outcomes via the poster presentation.

Summer undergraduate research students.

What is your research focus?

My area of research focuses on the measurement of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a variety of sources. VOCs are important when trying to understand air quality and what contributes to “bad” air quality days. My research has evolved more recently to include measuring greenhouse gases from agriculture, indoor air quality, and education.

As director of undergraduate research at WSU, I’m very interested in understanding how undergraduate research can impact a student’s education. So in addition to research in the laboratory for atmospheric research, I also do research on education and some of the best practices for helping students learn.

Muhui Chen inspects a test tube in the lab.
Summer research student Muhui Chen.

Why should students attend WSU?

Washington State University is a great school with so many ways for students to get engaged. Opportunities abound at WSU, if students are willing to go for them.

What advice would you give to students to excel?

Try everything you can to see if you like it. Use this time to explore what you like and don’t like.