Sarah Comstock named 2021 MSU Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor of the Year

Comstock, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is one of two university-wide recipients of the student-nominated award.

Headshot of Sarah Comstock

Sarah Comstock, assistant professor in the Michigan State University (MSU) Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, believes that undergraduate research is a key tool for helping students understand how science works.

Her dedication to helping undergraduate researchers learn and grow is why she has received MSU’s 2021 Undergraduate Research Faculty Mentor of the Year Award. The honor is presented to two faculty members — one representing science and engineering, and another representing arts and humanities — who demonstrate commitments to undergraduate research, provide strong professional mentoring, and serve as role models in their respective fields of study. Comstock was selected out of a pool of 32 nominees submitted by students and reviewed by a panel of undergraduate researchers.

“It’s a great honor when the students themselves make the time to nominate you for such an award,” she said. “To be selected for this award is a testament to my students and how they feel about my mentorship during their research experiences.”

Comstock’s research group currently includes six undergraduate students. These students are incredibly instrumental to Comstock’s work analyzing how maternal diet and exposures such as food, infections, chemicals and medications can impact the immunological and neurodevelopment of infants.

“Undergraduate researchers are vital to my research program's success,” she said. “Because I'm a research assistant professor, I do not have some of the resources that tenure-track assistant professors come in with. Having these really talented students who are motivated and excited to do science has been of utmost importance.”

Comstock’s research has two aspects: a lab “bench science” side, in which students conduct physical experiments, and an epidemiology/bioinformatics side, which involves analyzing data using statistical models on a computer.

“Undergraduates can choose and try out these different skills and tips and tricks, both in lab work and more computer-driven work until they decide what it is that really interests them and what they find to be most satisfying,” she said. “It's really dependent on the students.”

The majority of Comstock’s undergraduate researchers are part of the MSU Honors College’s Professorial Assistantship program, which gives high-achieving undergraduates opportunities to assist faculty with research. She is often matched with freshmen students who continue to work in her lab throughout the duration of their undergraduate careers.

“When students spend longer than six months to a year in the lab, they have the time to see a project go from data collection, to analysis, to publication,” Comstock said. “Most of the students who have stayed with my lab for four years have been able to be a co-author, or even a first author on at least one paper. It gives them a depth of knowledge and experience that will be valuable later on in their careers.”

She hopes her undergraduate researchers leave MSU with a greater appreciation of science and research.

“Many of the students who come to work with me, actually, are pre-health professional students who eventually want to become doctors, physician’s assistants, physical therapists, dentists, etc.” Comstock said. “They're not necessarily going to go on into scientific research. This may be the one time in their lives where they get to experience, hands-on, what research is, how it works, and how what they might read in the journals, once they're actually practitioners, actually gets into that journal. My hope is that they can use what they learned in my lab to better understand some of the papers they read as they continue their career in health sciences.”

Comstock said helping students understand research is the most rewarding part of her job.

“I find it so gratifying when I see a student who's been with me for a while and they can really take the reins: they can describe the theory behind what we're doing, they can describe potential implications and reasons for why we're seeing what we're seeing,” she said. “Observing that growth in the student over those years is super fulfilling. In fact, it may be one of the most fulfilling parts of a job as a researcher.

“There's a lot of negativity, sometimes, involved in a scientific career with all the grant rejections, paper revisions, etc. The interaction with undergrads and seeing them take a project from start to finish and experiencing the joy of their name on the top of a journal article is one of the most fulfilling parts of the job. It makes up for some of that negativity.” 

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