Beakers, books, faraway places
Undergraduate research spans the disciplines and the globe.
Photo by Tom Cogill.
Juliana Schroeder (Psychology, Economics ’08) knew from the start that research was going to play a major role in her undergraduate career at U.Va.
“I came from a high school where research was very much encouraged,” the Echols Scholar explains. “I already knew I wanted to do research, but I was interested in the policy side of it and what U.Va. had to offer in terms of support and funding opportunities.”
Davis Zaunbrecher (Latin American Studies, Government ’09), on the other hand, didn’t even know undergraduate students could do academic research when he arrived at the University.
For both students, the Undergraduate Research Network (URN) has become an essential part of life at U.Va. In her first few weeks at the University, Schroeder sought out this student-run organization that fosters and supports academic research at the baccalaureate level. Over the past two years, she has served on and chaired several committees within the organization and participated as a research assistant for several psychometric studies in the psychology department.
As she entered her third year at the University, Schroeder was planning the first of two distinguished major thesis projects and expected to be listed as an author on several research publications.
“We want to help students get involved in every step of the research process,” explains Schroeder, who now heads URN as chair of the executive committee. “A lot of first-years get involved with URN in hopes of learning more about how to do research and how to go about it.”
URN has only existed for five years, but it’s changing the culture throughout the University, according to Nicole Hurd (PhD, Religious Studies ’02), who until recently headed the Center for Undergraduate Excellence through which URN is administered. “There’s an expectation now that you really should be doing undergraduate research while you’re here,” she says. “We estimate that about 50 percent of our students are doing undergraduate research, whether it’s writing a thesis or winning a Harrison Award or doing some sort of major lab project.”
The research network reaches out to the entire undergraduate community to pull young Wahoos into the circle of academic research for which the University is famous. Through introductory sessions, such as “Beakers, Books and Far Away Places,” URN dispels the myth that research is a highly technical process that only Ph.D.s in white lab coats can do. URN workshops on how to write a research proposal and how to find and apply for research funding give students the tools they need to get started on their own projects. Through the resources and connections URN provides, professors and graduate students serve as mentors supporting fledgling researchers through the data collection, analysis and writing a report. And URN provides student researchers with opportunities to present their projects through symposia and Oculus, the journal of undergraduate research.
It was through conversations with classmates about their research experiences and attending URN workshops that Zaunbrecher became hooked. Since then, his world has expanded significantly. In the span of one year, this self-described run-of-the-mill first-year discovered undergraduate research, crafted a proposal for his own project to study local politics in Mexico, applied for a Harrison grant to fund it and, when the application was turned down, spent the summer as a research assistant to upperclassman Ross Baird (Politics Honors ’07) exploring voter turnout patterns in Georgia.
The Harrison Undergraduate Research Award is one of a number of research funding opportunities administered through the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. Baird has won two of these coveted grants, which are awarded annually to support a student and faculty mentor in a scholarly research project. A second award, the Double Hoo Research Grant, was developed by URN to provide similar funding for undergrad and graduate student collaborations.
“URN has a core of dedicated people who put on the events and keep the organization running,” Baird says, “but the real magic in URN lies in the network of people who do all this informal mentoring and informal peer collaboration.”
Baird and other students throughout the University review and critique each others’ grant proposals and research papers before submitting them, even when they are competing against each other for the same funding or publication. They exchange information about mentorship opportunities, identifying professors and grad students who enjoy working with undergrads. And when Zaunbrecher failed in his first attempt to get his project funded, Baird took the first-year under his wing as a research assistant on his own project, which he plans to submit as his honors thesis.
“Everyone who has won a grant or done something well did it because someone else helped them,” Baird explains, “so students are always eager to help the next wave of students coming through. There is a great sense of obligation of students in undergraduate research. They know they owe other people for what they’ve done well.”
Students gain much more than research experience when they get involved in undergraduate research. “Research is so eye-opening,” Schroeder declares. “It’s one thing to be reading and learning about academic concepts and it’s another to be doing it, applying them. I find that so much more fulfilling.”
Similarly, reviewing a colleague’s research report exposes students to information from another discipline that they might not otherwise encounter. Critiquing others’ grant applications pushes students to write better proposals for their own projects. And developing relationships with outstanding faculty members can have a significant impact not only on a student’s academic
experience at the University, but on a career afterward.
Research is valuable for undergraduates just for the experience alone, Hurd says, but there’s more to it than that. “What I’m more interested in promoting and the thing that inspires me is looking at undergraduate research as a way to make the most of your education.”