Researching High and Low: Undergraduate Research Opportunities, Their Limitations, and Why You Should Participate Anyway

Tufts University provides incredible research opportunities to its undergraduate students; in fact, the Admissions Office estimates that around 80% of students participate in some sort of research during their time on campus. At Tufts, it is easy to participate in research, a form of self-learning that takes one outside and beyond the classroom with hands-on skill building, potential career training, and individualized scholastic exploration. There are myriad funding agencies and support networks associated with Tufts to support student research initiatives; it’s just a matter of accessing and seizing them. After all, these opportunities are considered a rarity among most mid-sized schools, so one shouldn’t take them for granted.


Most people associate collegiate research with those who are on the pre-medical track or those who are in the School of Engineering. Take senior Karin Skalina, for example, who is doing work on maximizing E. coli’s production of an important antibiotic. Or take sophomore Nicholas Economos, who is studying telomeric sequences in yeast with the hopes of applying it to cancer drugs and research on aging.


Though there are many opportunities to do research in science-related areas of study, there are also many other less publicized opportunities for research at Tufts in a variety of other fields.


Associate Dean of Research for the Tufts School of Engineering, Eric Miller, truly appreciates all of the work that undergraduates put into research during their time at the university, regardless of subject matter. Miller excitedly tells the Observer, “The undergraduates are awesome. And I mean that in all sincerity. Just a really impressive group of students. They are very bright, they are very interested, they’re motivated, so they do good research.”


Skalina shed some light on the allure of research. On getting involved, she says, “I had a ‘hole’ in my schedule and decided to do research for credit to fulfill a Chemical & Biological Engineering concentration elective.” After a semester-worth of assisted research, she continued to work with her research advisor, Dr. Blaine Pfeifer, for credit. Eventually she participated in Tufts’ Summer Scholars Program, where her projects became more independent. If Skalina hadn’t discovered the path of research, her future might have been very different. “I have decided to pursue a career in cancer research,” she says. “It is from my experience in Professor Pfeifer’s lab that I was able to learn about my love of research.”


On a similar whim, Economos “stumbled upon the lab after hearing about it from a friend,” but says, “I’ve loved it since the day I started.” He sees his lab in terms of the larger picture, explaining, “We have found a few promising plasmids that will hopefully be sequenced sometime soon. Though we are still in the primitive stages of our work, these are the types of discoveries that could hopefully lead to something great.”


Senior Lauren Rubin, a child development major and pre-med at Tufts, took a different approach to research by taking advantage of Tufts’ Community Field Placement course to seek out an educational opportunity. She worked with Dr. Naomi Steiner, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Tufts Medical Center, on a study to determine the effectiveness of yoga in helping children with behavioral and emotional difficulties and further examine the feasibility of implementing yoga treatment within the school system. Rubin explains, “The project was already in motion; I joined as a research intern.” She adds, “The school had limited space and resources, parents were often unresponsive, [and] children forgot about appointments, so I had to think on my feet a lot and be super flexible.”


Rubin gained invaluable experience working on ‘The Yoga Project’, telling the Observer, “I found out how much I loved clinical research, and, through my relationship with my research advisor, I now have a job on another one of her projects for the year after graduation.”


These undergraduate opportunities can lead to postgraduate ones. Not only does one network with the project’s faculty, but through publication and greater community discourse, a student at Tufts can find himself with important and powerful off-campus connections even after his research is done.


Some projects can be entirely independent, if desired, as senior Ryan Stolp proves. A major in engineering psychology, Stolp used the availability of undergraduate research as a way of further exploring options post-graduation. Stolp excitedly explains, “This is the closest I’ve been able to come at Tufts to doing work that really aligns with my career goals.” He further states, “Having the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned in class has given me a realistic perspective on the application of that knowledge as well as helped make it stick in my brain!”


Stolp is “the inventor, fabricator, researcher, and experimenter, all in one” for a backpack that he has designed to “move in coordination with the internal bone and muscle structure in an organic fashion.”


Though his project has been successful thus far, Stolp expresses his frustration with what he calls the “no-man’s-land between liberal arts and engineering as an engineering psychologist.” He explains, “the engineering department makes it extremely difficult to have access to any of their fabrication workshops or machine labs, while the psychology department has no resources for, or expertise on, prototyping.” Though one may think that an interdisciplinary research project opens up more avenues for connections, it does the opposite. Since Stolp’s attempt weaves between departments, he loses one specific department’s oversight and its wealth of general support.


Tufts graduate Elizabeth Herman (LA ‘10), has proven that undergraduate research can lead to incredible, tangible opportunities after graduation. For her thesis at Tufts, Herman used the events of September 11, 2001 to “examine how textbook narratives reflect current political characteristics of nations, as well as how accounts are manipulated in order to influence national memory.”


Herman is currently in Bangladesh “researching the political influences on the development of national history curricula,” focusing on the country’s 1971 independence. This project idea was born out of her senior thesis and is one for which Herman was awarded a 2011 Fulbright Scholarship.


Herman originally applied to Tufts’ Summer Scholars Program in the hopes of being able to work on the research of Professor Kelly Greenhill of the international relations department. Despite her initial plan, Herman remembers, “[Greenhill] strongly encouraged me to dream up my own project on which she could, in return, support me.”

The Tufts Summer Scholars Program is a scholastic initiative offering apprenticeships for research projects. Its website explains that “every Tufts school, department, and research center provides opportunities for interested students to experience research first hand” via the scholarship. The program, which has been active since 2003, provides an average of 45 Tufts undergraduates with summer research opportunities, a $3,500 living stipend, a $1,000 grant for research expenses, and $1,000 given to the research fund led by the faculty mentor. Any juniors or seniors with at least a 3.0 grade point average are welcome to apply. (The Summer Scholars Program is not currently accepting more applications for Summer 2011.)


Each Tufts research project is different in terms of funding, and, while Stolp chose to fund his own project so that there is no conflict of ownership when he pursues a patent on his design, Herman turned to Tufts for funding. Herman explains that her need for monetary assistance rose “from buying textbooks, to getting translations done, to traveling to an international textbook library in Germany to collect a slew of textbooks that I would never have had access to otherwise.” Herman applied to the Undergraduate Research Fund for funding twice, but explains, “there’s a limit on the amount of funding you can receive in a given year,” so the Institute for Global Leadership helped provide extra funding for translators.


In fact, Tufts’ Undergraduate Research Fund’s website states that, “because of limited funds, it would be unusual for grants to exceed $450.” This monetary cap can make it difficult for undergraduates to pursue ambitious projects. Moreover, while there is a variety of other funding opportunities associated with Tufts or other organizations, finding the time for applicable grant applications for undergraduates can be exhausting.


And the total time spent with research projects can be rewarding. William Teresa, a sophomore researching the evidence of discrimination in children, tells the Observer, “People probably think all research is the same, that it’s very science-oriented and only involves boring and repetitive tasks in a lab or on a computer all day. That definitely is a part of it, but there are definitely opportunities to do research in something that goes along more with your interests, which takes the boring edge off a little bit. There’s something for everyone.”


Many Tufts undergraduates find that research is a viable option for anyone interested. Even freshmen can seize these opportunities, as proved by Eliana Gerson, who working on the same research project as Teresa after finding a posting on TuftsLife. Though it is a lot of work, Teresa says, “I prefer having the research because it diversifies my schedule a bit, and I find that I work better in a more structured schedule.”


Indeed, the idea of “time-consuming” projects is relative. Economos is expected to spend at least ten hours a week in the lab. He cautions, “I can promise… [that] I end up spending much more time than that by the time the week has finished. I kind of lose myself in the work after a while, and with so much to get done, six hours in a day [in the lab] can go by in a flash.” Economos proves that structure itself is relative, as his lab hours are more inconsistent, while Gerson holds her reliable research schedule in high regard.


Similarly, Dean Miller explains that the time spent doing research is entirely up to the student’s preferences going in to the work. Miller says, “It’s really a personal preference thing. […] They can be in the lab every day, if they wanted to, doing hardcore science.” Miller acknowledges that time is often hard to come by for undergraduates and some students are only able to spend a few hours a week working on their research project. This leniency in hourly commitment means that more students can participate in research, and they can participate at a pace that’s right for them.


No matter how much time per week is spent with it, undergraduate research opportunities can often change one’s future plans entirely, taking him to far off places or, as in Skalina’s case, helping him decide what to do in the future. Sophomore Taarika Sridhar, for instance, is conducting a research project focused on identity politics and development in Assam in northeast India. She spent time with her research partner writing pre-research papers and ended up flying to Assam and living there for a month during summer 2010. Sridhar returned to the area over winter break in 2010 to continue her research. Her project, which she made her own, gave back to her with culture, relationships, and knowledge.


Research can finally bridge the gap between intellectuals in the field and interested students while also promoting a beneficial working relationship between an undergraduate and a high-profile professional. In Sridhar’s case, she first developed her research idea during the 2009-2010 Education for Public Inquiry and International Citizenship (EPIIC) year-long course. She then met her research advisor, Mr. Sanjoy Hazarika, director of the Center for Northeast Studies and Policy Research in Guwahati, Assam and New Delhi in India at EPIIC’s yearly symposium. Sridhar remembers that she “pitched… [her] idea to him, and it just took off from there.” In classrooms, students are accustomed to working individually or with their peers, providing both new types of learning and new types of interactions for those that pursue it.


Research is an incredible way for any type of Tufts student to get involved in a different type of learning. Published articles, stimulating results, new networks, credits, and memories are a testament to this. And, as mentioned earlier, projects run the gamut, from silk to September 11th. College affords undergraduates the opportunity to explore most areas of research, regardless of prior experience. Though there are financial and time-related problems that come along with undergraduate research, the Observer urges all interested to participate—be it for a course, through Summer Scholars, or independently—in undergraduate research, regardless of its limitations.


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