Inside USD

Grant Expands Undergrad Research Possibilities

Monday, February 7, 2011

Jonathan Bowman couldn’t have been more proud last April when the University of San Diego’s annual Creative Collaborations was a showcase for many of his Communication Studies students.

The event, a celebration of undergraduate student research in the College of Arts and Sciences, School of Business Administration, Engineering Programs and School of Leadership and Education Sciences, included 16 different student team research projects that Bowman, a fourth-year professor, served on as faculty advisor. He was there for support, but said he was happiest to see his students take ownership of their projects.

“As an advisor, I’d make some suggestions, but you really want them to continue with the project on their own,” he said. “I think we’re really good about letting students be co-authors and let them independently produce research and suggest ideas.”

Michelle Camacho-Walter, a sociology professor, still raves about a student she taught during her first semester at USD. Interested in finding out more about a group of migrants who were living in a canyon near her neighborhood, the student, Camacho-Walter recalls, wanted to find out their original hometown and then go to interview their families left behind while searching for better opportunities.

“That’s a very ambitious project for an undergraduate student, but I didn’t want to quell her desire to do something; so I helped develop her idea a bit,” Camacho-Walter said. “But she talked to them, found out about their community and then traveled there with a friend. She interviewed the women and, in some cases, took letters on behalf of the men. This was my first semester and it gave me this incredible sense of the potential of USD students. Since then, I’ve always held my students to the standard. ‘Do you want to dream it? I want to help you make it happen.’”

Seeing potential to expand on this important academic exercise, USD has received a major boost as it recently secured a $250,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation. The grant lets USD develop a centralized undergraduate research office and hire a director to manage its progress.

“The Keck Foundation grant allow us to expand our undergraduate research opportunities into emerging areas,” said Dr. Mary Boyd, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “Undergraduate research has a long tradition, in the sciences particularly, but it’s more recent that people have thought of undergraduate research or creative activity in the humanities, the arts and some social science disciplines. This allows us to move into those emerging areas so that all undergraduates at USD can have the opportunity to pursue research, scholarship or creative activity.”

The impetus for providing undergraduate research opportunities at USD has been led by faculty members. The grant proposal team featured faculty members in ethnic studies, psychology, chemistry and biochemistry, theatre arts, communication studies, philosophy, biology and sociology.

The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry already requires each student in the major to engage in undergraduate research. In biology, Boyd said, some faculty are now incorporating authentic research opportunities into the curriculum, thus exposing students to something that can spark their interest.

“Faculty members across campus have shown in the past several years that there has been an increase in the work we’re doing with undergraduate research students. We’ve seen growth in Creative Collaborations as well as growth in external funding in support of undergraduate research in general,” said Debbie Tahmassebi, department chair and professor for Chemistry and Biochemistry. “We’ve shown we do have the quality to be nationally and internationally recognized for our strength in undergraduate research and scholarship. The creation of this office is going to facilitate development in more areas and more faculty who are trying to figure out how to work with undergraduate students in their discipline.”

The grant has five primary objectives:

• Foster undergraduate research as a cornerstone of an undergraduate education at USD;

• Achieve visible institutional commitment to and recognition of the importance of undergraduate research for faculty and students;

• Centralize disparate programs impacting undergraduate research and administer them efficiently;

• Increase national recognition among peers, students and parents considering universities for quality undergraduate research and education along with student awards and fellowships, and;

• Cultivate relationships with community members in support of undergraduate research.

Currently, undergraduate research opportunities exist in the classroom and laboratories during the school year, but USD also has two summer programs, SURE (Summer Undergraduate Research Experience) for current students who work closely with a faculty member on their research, and PURE (Pre-Undergraduate Research Experience) for admitted USD students who will be freshmen in the fall.

Students from SURE and PURE also connect through USD’s U-RISE (Undergraduate Research-Inspired Student Engagement) summer program, which brings them together with USD students who are TRiO McNair Scholars. Aided by a 2008 department development award from the Arizona-based Research Corporation, Boyd said U-RISE is a good example of what’s possible on a wider scale at USD.

“It allowed us to expand beyond the concept of just a faculty member working with a student, but to think of the creation of a broader community of scholars and incorporate co-curricular activity as well,” she said.

Securing the Keck grant, a thorough two-year process helped along by USD Foundation Relations Senior Director Annette Ketner, enables the university to take the next step so that each undergraduate student has the chance to have a research experience and enhance his or her overall development.

Executive Vice President and Provost Julie Sullivan said she appreciated the diligence and interest shown by the Keck Foundation throughout the process, pointing out the importance of foundation officials visiting the campus to meet with USD administrators, deans and faculty and offering feedback.

“The Keck Foundation took the grant process very seriously,” Sullivan said. “Rarely does a foundation have such personalized interaction. And now that the proposal has been funded, I feel this will be not only very beneficial to the university but I also believe the Keck Foundation will be proud of the interactive process.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

Photos courtesy of Nick Abadilla

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