Nov. 21-Dec. 4, 2003
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Students share independent research
Presentations celebrate undergraduate scholarship
The Undergraduate Research Network and various funding sources have led to an explosion in undergraduate research at U.Va. The students shown above are among a dozen who presented their research findings Nov. 21 at Jefferson Hall.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
The Undergraduate Research Network and various funding sources have led to an explosion in undergraduate research at U.Va. The students shown above are among a dozen who presented their research findings Nov. 21 at Jefferson Hall.

By Matt Kelly

Versha A. Patel started nervously but gained confidence as she spoke about her research into traditional African medicine and its potential for combating AIDS. Standing in front of a laptop and controlling the displays on the screen to her left, she outlined her research techniques and detailed what her work could mean to the AIDS-ravaged continent.

Patel, a fourth-year French and biology major who did her research as an independent study with biology professor Michael P. Timko this past summer, is part of a recent explosion in undergraduate research at the University.

“There are more students pursuing research now due to the enthusiasm of the Undergraduate Research Network,” said Nicole F. Hurd, assistant dean and director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence. “The
culture at U.Va is very friendly to undergraduate research.”

Patel was among a dozen students who presented their research Nov. 21 at Jefferson Hall. Their topics included “Astronomical Phenomena: Gamma Ray Bursts,” “Beyond Curing: The Challenge and Promise of Pediatric Hospice Care,” “Urban Property Rights Formalization in Theory and Practice” and “Bradford Race Riots: Understanding the Conflict.”

“This is independent research that puts students to work with a mentor and a chance to take their undergraduate education a step further,” Timko said. “It goes beyond the traditional college education to let the student work on what is passionate for them. It takes motivated students and makes them better.”

One catalyst for research is the Undergraduate Research Network, created in 2001 to initiate, develop and celebrate undergraduate research, Hurd said. The network supports undergraduate researchers by publishing The Oculus, a journal of undergraduate research; organizing symposiums for students to explain their research; and surveying faculty members looking for researchers.

The students’ own organizational efforts have been assisted by coordinated efforts from the deans and from the provost’s office, Hurd said.

“Everybody has been working together on this,” she said. “It is a perfect intimate learning environment and a major research university. This fits U.Va.’s personality perfectly.”

Coordination has generated a variety of funding sources for undergraduate research, the most notable of which is the David A. Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards.

“The Harrisons are still the flagship grants,” Hurd said. “They are the spark that has lit the fire, and now there is more interest and more opportunity.”

Hurd added that the Harrison awards, now in their fifth year, will fund the research of about 40 out of approximately 150 applicants. Harrison grants total about $160,000 each year and give students $1,000 to $3,000 for research-related expenses.

“The grant made it possible for me to buy art material for the kids,” said Harrison winner Leah B. Rosenberg, a third-year political and social thought and philosophy major who studied pediatric hospice care in Virginia Beach.

Other funding sources include the Summer Research Grants from the College of Arts & Sciences, which can be up to $2,500 per project, and Dean’s Scholarships, which can provide $2,500 to $5,000 in research money. Four years ago there were 30 applicants for the 15 to 17 Dean’s Scholarships that are awarded, Hurd said; this past year, there were 239 applicants for the same number of scholarships.

The Summer Science Program, while not giving money directly to students, established a system of bringing together those students who work on science projects over the summer to hear a faculty member discuss his or her research.

“It was an effort to build a community of lab research during the summer,” Hurd said.

Much of the research is driven by student interest, and many who fail to obtain funding will continue their research anyway, Hurd said.

“It is wonderful when intellectual curiosity is more important than funding,” she said.

This curiosity pushes students to think about research earlier in their college careers, according to Hurd.

“They ask about how to get into the labs,” she said. “There is a lot of outreach, and that makes them think about their eight semesters here, think about publishing, getting to know the faculty, which can lead to better letters of recommendation. We are trying to get them to think long term.”

Undergraduate research is not limited to hard sciences. Research in humanities separates U.Va. from some of its peer institutions, Hurd said.

“It is exciting how students in the arts are energized,” Hurd said. “They are producing papers not solely in one discipline, such as history and English.”

Even prospective students are very interested in research, and this has a positive impact on the recruitment of serious students the University is trying to attract, said John A. Blackburn, dean of admission.

“We have The Oculus on our table in the Admission Office for visitors to take, and they are very popular with high school students, for many of them want to do original research in college,” Blackburn said. “They often are surprised to find that what they see as a big university can make this happen.”



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