Undergraduate research funding on the rise at UAF

Jeremia Schrock/Sun Star Reporter
Sept. 27, 2011

Since 2000, the University of Alaska Fairbanks has focused on undergraduate research by investing money into student-driven projects. For a decade, UAF has steadily shifted both attention and dollars toward creating research opportunities for undergraduates. Before, only scholarships in the Rasmuson Foundation provided funding to undergraduate students. Now a steady supply of money and attention comes from federal and state governments, the College of Liberal Arts, individual departments and the new Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity office.

As an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, Barbara Taylor studied the feeding behavior and physiology of intertidal marine snails. When she came to UAF, it was a “no brainer” to become involved with undergraduate research as a faculty adviser, she said. “It was just what you did [as a professor],” she said. Now, she directs the new Undergraduate Research and Scholarly Activity (URSA) office.

URSA opened Sept. 12 and will eventually keep track of undergraduate research at UAF. 

Regardless of whether students continue their studies in graduate school, research experience forces students to think critically, learn to solve problems and develop communication skills, Taylor said. All of those attributes will benefit them outside of college. “Every employer is looking for stuff like that,”  Taylor added.

About 25 percent of students graduate from UAF with research experience, Taylor said, according to a survey given to graduating seniors. Upper division courses, independent studies and fieldwork counted as research experience in this study.

These numbers can vary from department to department. While the history department requires a senior thesis (which emphasizes original research), the earth sciences department does not. The website for the biology and wildlife department boasts that 50 percent of their undergraduate students are involved in research projects, both lab-based and in the field.

UAF aims to invest $300,000 per year into undergraduate research, Taylor said. Statistics for how much money UAF puts toward undergraduate research are currently unavailable.

When the university began tackling undergraduate research with fervor in 2000, it began taking part in the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The EPSCoR program is overseen by the National Science Foundation. The program provides funding to both graduate and undergraduate research projects that dovetail with the program’s theme for that year. This year’s theme focuses on sustainability and social-ecological systems.

Between 15 and 30 undergraduates apply for EPSCoR grants every year, according to program communication-outreach coordinator Pips Veazey. On average, 15 undergraduates receive funding each year. Students use that money to study projects in either the biological, physical or social sciences. “That’s one of our goals, to fund a broad spectrum of students,” Veazey said.

Undergraduate research improves a student’s chances of being accepted into graduate school, Veazey said. Students who graduate with research experience tend to have more confidence, skills and enthusiasm, he added. The deadline for applying for EPSCoR funding for 2012 is Friday, Sept. 30, 2011.

In 2009, the College of Liberals Arts (CLA) began funding undergraduate research. The college allocated $50,000 to finance the program in response to a report on undergraduate research written by Terry MacTaggart and Chancellor Brian Rogers.

The first year of the program gave 12 students a total of $15,500, while the second year gave six students approximately $8,000. The program funded theses in both history and art, presentations at national conferences, and peer-reviewed publications. One project, which combined linguistics with a search for extraterrestrial life, caught the eye of NASA.

Anita Hartmann spearheads CLA’s undergraduate research initiative. Hartmann, the college’s associate dean, wrote the grants that allow CLA to fund its undergraduate research projects. She also oversees the money’s dispersal. “My passion is undergraduate research,” Hartmann said.

Hartmann, along with a third of CLA faculty, makes regular donations to scholarships in the Rasmuson Foundation, Hartmann said. She has the university auto-deduct donations from her paycheck, she added.

Most research money within the college finds its way to the arts and humanities. These areas tend to be better funded because those students apply for research grants more often, Hartmann said.

The college accepts applications for undergraduate research for the 2011-2012 school year until Wednesday, Nov. 23, at 5 p.m.

“[Undergraduate research] develops critical thinking skills, it develops team skills,” Hartmann said.

“When you come out of the university you don’t stop learning,” Hartmann said. People in today’s economy are not only re-training themselves, but also rethinking their lives in the face of economic downturn, she said. “You have to be a creative, critical thinker to face the challenges of the world,” she said.


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