Champion of undergraduate research

On a cold winter night in 1979, Pat Pukkila woke up at 3 a.m., turned to her husband and said, “Honey, I have to go into the lab.” A biology postdoc at Harvard, Pukkila knew that after many months, the results of her experiments, designed to show how bacteria correct mistakes made when DNA is copied, would be readable. As she recalls seeing the results, she is nearly moved to tears 34 years later.

“I can still feel the hairs rise on the back of my neck,” Pukkila said. “A problem is so simple once you understand it. It’s such a thrill to know something that no one else yet knows.”

Ensuring that undergraduates at Carolina have the opportunity for that same thrill of discovery has been the focus for the past 14 years for Pukkila, professor of biology and director of Carolina’s Office for Undergraduate Research (OUR). As the office’s founding director, Pukkila has transformed the Carolina undergraduate academic experience. She has been at UNC for 34 years.

“Pat’s leadership has helped build on campus a culture that supports discovery-based learning,” said Donna Bickford, associate director of OUR. “Students who have participated in an undergraduate research program see themselves as knowledge producers not just knowledge consumers. This experience transforms not just their education but how they think of themselves.”

That transformation was what Pukkila hoped to achieve.

“My goal was to change the culture surrounding undergraduate involvement in creative original work,” she said. “I am proud to say that we have achieved that, and that we are the first public university to bring undergraduate research to scale in the curriculum.” In fact, 65 percent of graduating seniors received academic credit for undergraduate research in 2011-2012.

Colleagues say that Pukkila’s passion, creativity and commitment have led to the success of undergraduate research at Carolina.

“Pat’s personal commitment to undergraduate research has been parlayed into an institutional commitment to doing this,” said Bobbi Owen, senior associate dean for undergraduate education.  “Pat is a pretty self-effacing person, so the work she does is never about her; it’s always about the students.”

Throughout Pukkila’s tenure as director — which will end this June upon her retirement — her innovations have extended the depth and breadth of undergraduate research opportunities. The Graduate Research Consultant (GRC) program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last December, is just one example. GRCs are graduate students who provide support to faculty by guiding undergraduates through their research projects from beginning to end.

Ginnie Hench, a postdoc who works in Pukkila’s lab, says that her experience as a graduate research consultant enabled her to be more effective in teaching her own seminar this semester.

“Being a GRC gave me the opportunity to see how someone else runs a seminar in the biology department,” said Hench. “The program gives graduate students the ability to mentor undergraduates and, at the same time, learn from the professors they assist.”

Bickford says that one mark of the success of the GRC program is that in the last 10 years, more than 750 GRCs have helped faculty in at least 700 courses provide research experiences to more than 21,000 undergraduate students. “Students who don’t even know they are interested in research have this opportunity because of Pat’s innovation,” she said.

Read more in Carolina Arts and Sciences magazine.

Published June 21, 2013.