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New Office to Support Undergraduate Research
January 31, 2000

Metallurgy professor James Galligan needs a few motivated undergraduates to join his lab to study how electrons control plasticity of crystals.

Jennifer Mack, a University Scholar majoring in diagnostic genetic services, has questions about credits and needs some financial help for a six-month research project, studying the genetics of endangered species at San Diego Zoo.

Pfizer Corp. needs some qualified students for its summer internships and wants to get the word out.

Until now, establishing the necessary connections to meet such needs was largely a matter of chance. But this semester, the University is formalizing and extending the process through a new Undergraduate Research Office, headed by Kathy Usher, assistant director of the Honors Program.

"Faculty have always had students doing research in the past, but it has been an individual thing, and it also depended on the major," says Michael Cutlip, professor of chemical engineering and director of the honors program. "It was a question of whether the student was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. The University hasn't had an organized effort across all the disciplines before."

The office is intended to help raise students' awareness of the opportunities for doing research and of the financial and other support available.

It will also support faculty members who wish to involve undergraduates in research.

Cutlip estimates that there are up to 300 seniors doing research projects, and many other undergraduates actively involved at different stages of their University career. One of the tasks of the new office will be to find out the extent of undergraduate research, and to highlight what each department is doing, he says.

The University is one of just 10 of the 59 public Research I universities nationwide to have an undergraduate research office, says Cutlip.

The office, located in the Honors Program in South Campus, will serve all UConn students, not just honors students. It's part of a growing University-wide emphasis on undergraduate research. Establishing the office was recommended in a report submitted in November by a committee on undergraduate research, chaired by Gerald Gianutsos, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences.

"This is a research university. It's vital for undergraduates who go through this institution to participate in what that means," says Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction. "We want to make undergraduate research experience a hallmark of the institution."

Steele says the University is committed to providing a research experience for any undergraduate who wants it, and is working to identify funding and other forms of support for faculty to make this possible. In the future, she says, she would like every student to have a capstone experience - a project at the end of the degree that takes what the student has learned and integrates it - before graduating.

What "research" means varies from one discipline to another. It can be anything from writing the script for a play, to analyzing texts in the humanities, evaluating data in the social sciences, or designing and running experiments in a lab. And it involves a continuum of possibilities, ranging from limited programs within the context of a course to an apprenticeship working with faculty and graduate students as mentors.

But in every discipline it's about exploring the unknown, doing something in a way that hasn't been done before.

For students accustomed to taking lecture notes, doing research can seem daunting. They may not even know it's a possibility.

"Getting students jump-started in research is one of the things we want to do," says Usher, who previously headed the University's scholarship office. "A lot of times they don't know about the opportunities. We want to bring opportunities to the students."

Those opportunities include a summer research program, launched last year, that provides a stipend and, if needed, travel money for undergraduates to do research during the summer break; the Undergraduate Research Support Program, which provides stipends to help undergraduates with research expenses during the academic year; and a spring poster session at which undergraduates can present their research to the public.

In addition to opportunities at UConn, the undergraduate research office will also help students identify research opportunities elsewhere - at other major universities and research centers and in business - and the funding that is available to support research.

But it isn't just a matter of alerting students to what's out there. Students often need encouragement. "They need a little bit of a push," Usher says. Sometimes they are apprehensive about the reports and paperwork that will be required if they venture into new areas, a concern Usher hopes to address by offering workshops for students. There's also a need to build up students' capabilities, she says. "We will educate students about protocol, the importance of being responsible and following through."

The new office will also take a role in increasing the research opportunities available at the University. Usher is working with Sandy Schulte, associate director, Office for Sponsored Programs, to alert faculty members to the potential for including a request for undergraduate research funding in grant proposals. "Often, for a minimum of paperwork, a principal investigator can get an add-on for undergraduate research," says Usher, "so we will encourage all faculty, where funded, to apply."

Other possibilities include identifying work-study placements for students to use part of their financial aid to work in a research setting, and the prospect of additional private funding for undergraduate research, deriving from the University's impending capital campaign.

The benefits of research are wide-ranging. It's becoming conventional wisdom that hands-on experience boosts learning, and the chance to explore a topic in an open-ended way can be a liberating experience for students. Many value the close mentoring relationship that can develop with a faculty member.

The experience also may help students define their career plans. And the specific skills that research helps develop - defining a project, thinking critically, making decisions and solving problems - are sought after by a range of potential employers as well as by graduate and professional schools.

Faculty members who have worked closely with individual students during on research project are better able to help the students make the connections they need with business and industry or graduate and professional schools.

The Undergraduate Research Office is planning to take the transition to graduate school a step further, by compiling a list of UConn alumni who are graduate students and the institutions where they are studying, so that undergraduates interested in applying to a particular school can contact them and find out more about it.

To contact the Undergraduate Research Office, call Kathy Usher at (860) 486-6255 or send a fax: (860) 486-3715 or e-mail: The office is located in Room 106, South Campus Building A.

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu