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Brian Nicholson, Deseret News
Students make their way to class at Weber State University in Ogden Monday, February 7, 2011.

I was invited to attend the National Conference on Undergraduate Research at Weber State University last week. What I saw was an eye opener. Over 3,000 students and faculty members from 60 colleges and universities around the country gathered to share their scientific research and to hear Nobel Prize Winner Mario Capecchi present the keynote address.

In what may be the largest convention ever held in Ogden, hotel rooms from Brigham City to North Salt Lake were fully booked. The economic impact on northern Utah exceeded $2 million. Even more impressive are the 175 Weber State University undergraduates who presented their research at the conference. Some of their projects are being published in important scientific journals.

We don't ordinarily think of WSU as a "prestige" college in Utah, since freshmen enter with a test score average just below the 40th percentile. But they graduate with an average score in the 70th percentile. Nationally, WSU places third among its peer institutions for six year graduation rates and is fourth in the nation among its peers for first-year freshmen retention. In a nutshell, this means that WSU adds significant value to each student.

Clearly, something good is happening for undergraduates at WSU. Part of it is attributable to WSU President Ann Millner's charismatic leadership, but based on my interviews with WSU students, I think something far deeper is occurring.

The students tell me that the WSU faculty love them. Their professors make extraordinary efforts to mentor them and help them succeed. The faculty do this with few resources and little reward for taking their students into their laboratories. I am told that Utah spends less at WSU per graduate than at any other institution in the State.

Utah is blessed to have some great research institutions including the University of Utah, Utah State University and of course, my alma mater BYU. Yet WSU, often overlooked, seems to be staking a claim to becoming the premier undergraduate research institution in the Intermountain region.

Paul Alan Cox is the executive director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyo.