Frank Ryan Lawson







Chris Greer



Megan Glick





Professor Rick Gabor

photo by Andrew Campbell


Associate professor David Uttal

photo by Andrew Campbell


Conducting HIV/AIDS research in schools and health clinics in Delhi, India; tracking a famous poet’s life in Spain; studying Native American tribal colleges in the western United States; and compiling a book of children’s stories on ecological traditions on the island of Madagascar.

Northwestern undergraduates had these opportunities and more last year, thanks to an 11-year-old, ever-growing grants program that provides students with money to conduct research projects in the United States and all over the world.

"I can’t stop thinking about how blessed I am," says Ethan Sawyer. An undergraduate research grant enabled him to go to Granada, Spain, to study the life and work of Federico García Lorca, a poet executed during the Spanish Civil War and remembered today as a national martyr. Sawyer is now producing a digital video based on his experience. "It’s easy to tell my gratitude by looking at my face. I just smile and smile."

Sawyer is not atypical. Other grant recipients have had the thrill of doing research in areas they might never have explored otherwise. Extending beyond the traditional emphasis at other universities on the hard sciences, Northwestern’s undergraduate grants cover a wide academic spectrum. Students have created arts performances, joined archeological digs, written novels and conducted demographic surveys in this country and in every corner of the globe.

"The learning experiences of students are limited only by their imaginations," says Rick Gaber, Charles Deering McCormick Professor of Teaching Excellence and professor of biochemistry, molecular biology and cell biology and director of the Undergraduate Research Grants Committee. "We observe no barriers or boundaries with regard to the nature of the research or projects that we fund, and we view any creative endeavor as worthy of consideration."

In the past two years alone, senior Chris Greer traveled to Tucson and used high-power telescopes to track the evolution of galaxies; Erika Sutherland (WCAS, Nav01) took four trips as a senior to the grasslands of North Dakota to study cattle grazing patterns and their effect on the environment; and senior Megan Glick delved into the Columbia University Library in New York City to study primary documents on the life and works of Elizabeth Stoddard, a 19th-century U.S. poet and novelist.

For some, like senior Mira Shah, who researched HIV/AIDS awareness in Delhi with Siva Ambalam (WCAS01), the grants can lead to life-changing experiences (see story on page 26). "It taught me that there are people in this world who have problems that are unimaginable to me, and there I was thinking I was dealing with ‘big’ problems on a daily basis," she says.

Still growing

The Undergraduate Research Grants program started in 1990, with just $15,000 to dole out to two dozen students during the academic year.

Over time the budget was doubled to allow an increased number of students to participate and to boost the amount per grant so that projects with a bigger impact could be funded. Since 1990 the total sum devoted to academic year grants has grown to $30,000.

Showing even more growth is the summer grants program, which started in 1999 with the strong support of University President Henry Bienen. Steve Fisher, associate provost for undergraduate education, reports that the aggregate amount granted per summer has reached $125,000. The money for both the summer and the academic year grants comes from the general University budget.

In fact, Gaber says, the growth in undergraduate grants directly reflects the University’s commitment to undergraduate enrichment. "The program is a very high priority for the Northwestern administration, and although resources are limited, we make every effort to fund as many worthy applications as possible," he notes. "The rate at which the [University Research Grants Committee] can make awards is truly exceptional."

In 2001 the committee funded 56 of the 94 applicants for summer grants. The success rate for academic-year grant applicants is even higher: During the 2000–01 school year, the committee was able to approve three-quarters of the 48 applications.

The URGC has seven members who broadly represent the different intellectual disciplines within the University. Such academic diversity means at least one member can evaluate a grant in detail for the rest of the committee. Gaber reports that because the URGC invests enough time and detailed evaluation of the proposals, it always reaches a unanimous decision on whether to fund a proposal. "Of course, this is helped greatly by the fact that we have the appropriate amount of overall funding to disburse," he says. "It would be a very different issue if we could only fund a dozen grants a year."

Students are required to submit to the committee a proposal with the approval of a well-informed and involved faculty member who has agreed to act as an adviser to the project. While academic-year grants offer up to $1,000, as much as $3,000 per grant is available for summer undergraduate research.

"For the most part, even committee members with very different backgrounds can agree on what is a good project," says David Uttal, an associate professor of psychology who served as interim director of the committee when Gaber was on leave last year. "The best proposals are well presented with a clear idea; the students know what they want to do, and they are clear about the questions they are addressing."

Occasionally it becomes necessary to improvise during the research. Frank Lawson (S01) originally went to Beza Mehafaly — a tiny village in the desert of Madagascar, an island country off the coast of East Africa — to study the villagers’ environmental awareness and the ways in which they were working with their children to prevent further eco-destruction (see story on page 29).

After he arrived, however, Lawson realized his idea had been way off. To maintain an adequate food supply, the residents of Beza Mehafaly raised cattle even though the endeavor was environmentally harmful. And, having few other options to survive, they made no apologies for it. "These people were not talking about improvement; they didn’t see it as a need," Lawson says. "Instead, they were teaching their children about their culture. Their way of dealing with the environment was to explain why, traditionally, they had to do what they did with the land."

Lawson changed his thesis and lived in a tent in the village for three weeks to do a more culturally based study. With the help of a French translator, he started learning stories from children, whose parents had told them the tales, to explain why their customs were in place. The stories expressed the people’s feelings about different kinds of trees, and why some plants and animals are considered sacred while others are not.

"Things were so different from what I expected, and I was told so many stories to help me understand," Lawson says. "I started to see this as its own kind of environmental education, this passing down of environmental customs in the form of stories. I was learning more through children’s stories than I was through technical research."

Partnering with professors

Faculty involvement is crucial to the success of the program. The research grants have given professors and students occasions to collaborate on academic interests outside the typical "course" setting.

Faculty members help students narrow their focus, pinpoint sources, plan trips and prepare proposals. Senior Brian Budzicz hoped to analyze the transcript from a recent Chicago trial of a man convicted of murdering a police officer to determine the extent to which the prosecution used word choice and grammatical structure to subconsciously persuade the jury. Assistant professor Jean Goodwin of communications studies helped Budzicz find an affordable source for a copy of the 6,000-page trial transcript. She also helped the committee understand the method by which he will perform the analysis of the transcript.

"The grants offer students greater opportunities to do interdisciplinary or cross-school work, which is what we’re always encouraging them to do," says associate professor of history and grant committee member Josef Barton. "And it allows undergraduate faculty to venture outside the boundaries of their discipline and try something that uses the resources of other disciplines."

This year a student majoring in cognitive science proposed comparing individuals’ visual and auditory recall by measuring their memory of viewed objects and music. To quantify their responses she needed training on bio-sensing equipment from one of the directors of the biological laboratories that would allow her to add physiological data to her analysis. To fully develop the idea, the URGC even sent her a couple of psychology references to assist in designing the experiments.

The faculty also benefit from the curiosity and initiative of undergraduate researchers. As a professor, Barton experiences no greater joy than working with enthusiastic and committed students. "Members of the Northwestern faculty are able to develop collaborative relationships rather than the usual relationship of authority with students, which is extraordinarily rewarding," he says.

Students respond that the program has allowed them to form educational relationships with advisers from all walks of university life. Faculty from nearly every Northwestern school and college participate, even the J.L. Kellogg School of Management and the Medical School.

Equally important for students is the dollars-and-cents aspect of the program.
"The grant was really a godsend," Sutherland says. "I was really fortunate that there was a financial resource. I wouldn’t have been able to go to the grasslands otherwise."

In a note of thanks to the committee, Sawyer, the undergraduate who went to Spain, referred to its members as "the kind folks who changed my life. … I appreciate your willingness to match my faith in the project with your own."

With these grants Northwestern is hoping to send a message of priority to undergraduates. Indeed, such funding may be unique to Northwestern, while other universities usually reserve awards of this nature for graduate students. "One of the hallmarks of a Northwestern education is that students can get involved seriously in research as an undergraduate," Uttal says. "It’s hard to distinguish this kind of research from graduate-level work when you consider the degree of ownership of the project."

Barton agrees. "The program trusts undergraduates to come up with really interesting projects and gives them a lot more autonomy than the grants offered at most universities," he says.

Jump start to grad school

In many instances the students’ experiences have spurred them into further study at the graduate level.

Glick’s interest in Elizabeth Stoddard was initially sparked by the author’s eccentric personality and lyrical gothic style. "Stoddard wrote when sentimental literature was popular and was the expected form for women writers," Glick says. "Given her time and gender, she really stood out. But she wasn’t popular and hasn’t been given much treatment in recent scholarship, and I wanted to know why."

The project gave Glick time to consider her academic and intellectual aims. She has decided to apply to American studies and American literature graduate programs and hopes to someday pursue an academic career.

However, the program not only helps a few selected students — it has a major impact on the University by fostering an atmosphere of inquiry that improves the college experience for all students.

"The grants program helps to generate an academic environment that is richer, more diverse and more sophisticated by encouraging Northwestern undergraduates to develop exciting proposals and then enabling them to carry out the work," Gaber says.

Ultimately the program attracts top students, and it helps augment the University’s steadily rising academic reputation. "Northwestern becomes an institution that can rightfully boast that it can help undergraduates achieve their highest degree of excellence," Gaber says.

Adds Uttal: "The grants show that the University awards students who have gone out of their way and recognizes their efforts."

Emily Ramshaw (J03) of McLean, Va., is an editorial intern at Northwestern magazine. She is spending the winter quarter at the Tico Times in San José, Costa Rica, as part of the Medill Teaching Media program.