A Hilltop Rich in Undergrad Research
Published: Thursday, September 26, 2013
Updated: Friday, September 27, 2013 02:09
I was extremely pleased to see The Hoya’s editorial (“Uniting Research Resources,” A2, Sept. 17, 2013) because it demonstrates the intellectual vitality and motivation in our undergraduates. As a faculty member at Georgetown for the last 22 years, I have often bemoaned the lack of a unified research resource for undergraduates, and it was one of my biggest motivations to take on the position of vice provost for research.
This past January, the Psi Chi Honors Society in Psychology, the science departments and the Georgetown Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program launched a College Science Research Fair. With 35 faculty labs and hundreds of attendees, the fair was designed to open doors and minds to the range of research that is going on in the sciences at Georgetown. We were happily overwhelmed by the response. The fair gave students a chance to talk to other undergraduates, graduate students and professors about getting involved in research, and it is now scheduled as an annual event with plans for expansion into other schools.
We also provide two spring conferences that highlight undergraduate research. First, the long-standing School of Nursing and Health Studies conference for research in the health sciences; and on the main campus, the Undergraduate Research Symposium showcasing student research in all disciplines, including the medical center.
Third, we hope to soon gather information from faculty in every department, school and program on campus about research opportunities so that we can provide a centralized, searchable database on the GOFAR/GUROP webpages as was suggested by The Hoya’s editorial board. Students will be able to go to that site and search for research opportunities.
But even with such a database, the best way to find out what faculty members are up to is to ask them directly. In addition to their own research, faculty members often know about diverse research opportunities throughout the D.C. metro area. Collaborating with graduate students can also be quite rewarding. Other options include research tutorials, senior theses, honors theses and internships related to your field of interest. I urge you to get involved early in your career at Georgetown. The rewards for becoming involved in research often come a year or two after you get started. Many Georgetown students are eventually able to present at local or national conferences or publish in peer-reviewed publications.
Aside from the theses, honors, conferences and publications that you might add to your CV, research offers an educational experience like no other. Students might develop their own question or hypothesis, figure out a way to best answer that question or test their hypothesis, collect data, analyze it and write up their experiment or study. By treading through the primary literature and becoming part of the primary literature, the research process becomes somewhat demystified. Of course, the experiment might fail or the results didn’t come out as expected, but that is how most research goes. In the process, students develop a deep appreciation for research methods and can better interpret the scientific studies that confront us daily in the news and in our own lives.
Having worked with more than 160 undergraduates in my career, I am intimately aware of the excitement, dedication, smarts and sheer fortitude of Georgetown’s students. Many Georgetown undergraduates accompany me to the field to study wild bottlenose dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia. There, we work with a team that includes both undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral scientists. Our work is part of an international collaboration, and students overlap in the field with our colleagues studying various aspects of the Shark Bay ecosystem — fish and shark distributions, dugongs, sting rays, turtles and seagrass. This type of engagement in environmental conservation and wildlife management research has a long-lasting impact on undergraduates. It gives them valuable exposure to all aspects of field research, from teamwork to managing equipment and data to thinking hard about research and getting along in very cramped caravans and small boats. It is never as glamorous as they imagined, but it is also much more exciting and enlightening.
Providing the resources that undergraduates need to get involved in research is one of my top priorities. I’m pleased to say that we have several other big projects planned, because, personally, I view undergraduate research as one of the best educational experiences Georgetown can provide.
Janet Mann is vice provost for research and a professor of biology and psychology.