Opening new eyes to research

(Edmonton)  The Undergraduate Research Initiative office is now open and ready to help students become more directly involved in research activities and creative works at the University of Alberta.

The office, operated through CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre and located on the U of A’s North Campus, will provide a number of functions to assist undergraduate students in becoming involved in research on campus. The office will serve as a clearinghouse for students to learn about opportunities on campus—from courses to volunteer lab positions to internships—and a place where they can build awareness and knowledge of skills needed for participation in research.

“We want to help students learn how and why to get involved in research,” said Alexis Lockwood, experiential learning co-ordinator for the initiative.

The notion of an undergraduate student research office can trace its roots back to discussions in 2003 on finding ways to integrate teaching and research, says psychology professor Connie Varnhagen, the Undergraduate Research Initiative’s inaugural academic advisor. Over the past few years, Students’ Union candidates for vice-president (academic), “all ran their campaign on undergraduate research platform,” said Varnhagen. Both Varnhagen and Lockwood note that undergraduate research is part of the institution’s academic plan, something that the Students’ Union is very much involved in promoting and supporting.

Physically, the initiative’s space will also be a venue for lectures, presentations, workshops and student meetings related to undergraduate research, says Lockwood. She says they are looking at establishing drop-in sessions where students can ask research-related questions of graduate students and researchers on campus as well. Lockwood says cultivating that interest in research begins with providing the essential skills to navigate their way into that domain, including how to write a grant application or approach the topic of participating in research with a professor.

“A lot of what we will be working on is how to approach a faculty member appropriately,” said Lockwood. “We hope to bring in sessions on ethics and how it relates to research.”

The initiative will also oversee two streams of funding for undergraduate research. One stream will be available for researchers, instructors or graduate students to receive reimbursement for expenses related to research incorporating undergraduate students. Lockwood says the second stream would provide for a stipend for undergraduate researchers.

“That would be to pay them a wage or stipend to cover their costs,” she said. “However, they would have to be working with a research supervisor.”

While the office’s focus is on helping students get involved in research, Lockwood and Varnhagen say faculty still have an important role to play in the success of the venture. Varnhagen says that the establishment of the Undergraduate Research Initiative is a clear sign that inspiring the next generation of researcher can and should happen at the undergraduate level.

“It helps faculty recognize the role that undergraduates play and how we need to be sharing our research with students,” she said. “There’s lots of ways we can build research opportunities into even [introductory-level] classes.”