Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Undergraduate research: myth-busters edition

This week’s guest post is from Crystal Snyder, Coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI).

October…’tis the season for midterms, falling leaves, and turkey leftovers. At URI, it is also the time of year when we’re gearing up for our fall awareness campaign. In just a couple of weeks, the URI will be launching the University of Alberta’s first ever Festival of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (FURCA), a month-long showcase of undergraduate research from across all disciplines. FURCA will feature more than 30 different events throughout the month of November – still just a small sampling of the incredible impact that undergraduate students have on research at our institution.

FURCA is, first and foremost, a celebration of the accomplishments of undergraduate researchers and their mentors, but we also hope that the diverse array of events and projects will highlight the many opportunities that exist for students to get involved, regardless of their discipline or background. There are many myths and misconceptions that persist about what undergraduate research is and who can do it, and we hope that FURCA serves as a catalyst for breaking down some of those barriers.

With that in mind, I thought that it might be a good idea to start us off by challenging some of the most common misconceptions we hear about undergraduate research:

Myth #1 – It’s hard to start a conversation with a professor about research

Okay, so talking to strangers is hard. I get that. But as a former researcher, let me put to rest the idea that we’re scary, intimidating people. We love having the opportunity to talk to students who are interested in the same things we are. We get excited about our work, and it makes our day when we see someone else get just as excited about it. Sometimes, all it takes is one good question to break the ice. Or, as I like to tell students…we’re nerdy about something, you’re nerdy about something…if we’re nerdy about the same things, the conversation will practically start itself.

Myth #2 – You need to have a high GPA to succeed in research

Like many myths, this is one that probably persists because there’s a (tiny) hint of truth to it. That’s because many undergraduate research awards use GPA as a selection criterion, which can make it seem as though all the opportunities go to high-achieving students. This is unfortunate, because GPA is often not the best indicator of success in research. The research environment is very different from a traditional classroom setting, and some students who struggle in the classroom find themselves much better suited to the freedom of a research project. Indeed, many well known researchers were once admonished by their teachers, only to thrive in their research careers (2012 Nobel Prize-winning biologist John Gurdon comes to mind as an example).

The added bonus? Research continually reinforces what you’re learning in the classroom, so it’s like studying without the textbook.

Eligibility for funding doesn’t necessarily need to be a barrier – the URI administers the Undergraduate Researcher Stipend, a $5000 award for students undertaking a mentored research project, regardless of GPA, year of study, or academic program. Our deadline for applications for Winter 2014 is October 28 – visit our website for more information.

Myth #3 – You have to wait until your third or fourth year to do research

One of the most common inquiries we receive at the URI office is how first year students can get involved in research. This can be a challenge – after all, how do you get experience if you don’t have any experience? While it’s true that some professors prefer to take on students after they’ve completed more courses, it’s never too early to begin exploring your options. As a first year student, one of the best things you can do is get to know the people who are doing research in your area of interest – talk to your teaching assistants and professors, attend seminars and other events (like URI’s upcoming Discovery Panel on Sustainability Research), and talk to other students who’ve been involved in research (check out the Undergraduate Research Symposium on November 22 in CCIS). Once you’ve found a mentor, you can also apply for the URI Undergraduate Researcher Stipend – it’s worth noting that of the 78 students who have received Undergraduate Researcher Stipends to date, 27 have been in their first or second year of study. So don’t wait – get involved!

Watch www.uri.ualberta.ca for updates about FURCA events throughout November. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter @URIUofA (#FURCA2013)!

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