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December 15, 2010

Office of Undergraduate Research grooms future researchers, scientists

woman overlooking river and town
Emily Hart ’12 used her portable research grant to fund a trip abroad. She spent last summer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany through the DAAD-RISE (German Academic Exchange Service’s Research Internships in Science and Engineering) program, working with a doctoral student, setting up chemical reactions, and organizing and analyzing data.

When Elizabeth Beatriz ’11 began her career at the University, she had a general interest in public health. Knowing that conducting a research project could enhance her education, she applied for a portable research grant. What Beatriz didn’t know then was that two years later, the grant would take her to Bahia, Brazil, where she studied public health, race, and human rights while researching reasons why underreporting of domestic violence occurs among some Brazilian women.

“The idea of studying the collective health of a population and how seemingly unrelated elements, such as housing, education, profession, can affect one’s health has interested me long before I knew that this was a field of study,” she says. “Through this project, I’ve merged many disciplines and fields of thought . . . and it’s resulted in constant learning and developing.”

“These programs nurture and mentor the next
generation of researchers.”
–Steven Manly, director of undergraduate
research

Launched in 2008, the Portable Research Grant program is a partnership between the Admissions Office and the Office of Undergraduate Research, providing $3,000 in funding for students like Beatriz to conduct original research projects. The program is just one of many initiatives aimed at encouraging undergraduate students to get involved in research endeavors.

“These programs nurture and mentor the next generation of researchers,” says Steven Manly, a physics professor and the director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “Working with students on research projects is a phenomenal way of teaching; there are none of the artificial boundaries that can occur in the classroom.”

Emily Hart ’12 used her portable research grant for one small purchase and one large purchase. Hart bought a subscription to Scientific American, to “become familiar with current research” while the rest of her grant funded a trip abroad. She spent last summer at the University of Heidelberg in Germany through the DAAD-RISE (German Academic Exchange Service’s Research Internships in Science and Engineering) program, working with a doctoral student to conduct research in organic chemistry.

Edwin van Wijngaarden, an associate professor of community and preventive medicine at the Medical Center and chair of the Steering Committee for Public Health-Related Programs, says that working on research projects with undergraduates is most fruitful when the collaborations are useful for both the professor and the student.

“If a student can gather data or conduct literature reviews on a topic of the professors’ interest; they’re advancing the project while learning about the process of conducting research,” he says.

One of the goals of the Office of Undergraduate Research is to assist students in finding such research opportunities with faculty members.

“We’re really working on educating students about the research culture of the different departments on campus and promoting all the ways they can find these opportunities,” Manly says. “We’re also committed to supporting and encouraging faculty members who are willing to work with undergraduates.”

He says that many faculty members have been receptive to working with undergraduate students, either by assisting them on theses or independent projects or by incorporating them into their own research endeavors. Professors like van Wijngaarden have found the experience of working with undergraduates rewarding for several reasons.

“Undergraduate students have a motivation and excitement that can’t be surpassed,” says van Wijngaarden. “If we invest time and effort into these students, we provide them with a great experience here and a competitive edge as they go on to graduate school or enter the workforce.”

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