Conducting HIV/AIDS research in schools and health clinics in Delhi,
India; tracking a famous poets life in Spain; studying Native American
tribal colleges in the western United States; and compiling a book of
childrens 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
"I cant 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.
"Its 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,
Northwesterns 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
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.
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
In fact, Gaber says, the growth in undergraduate grants directly reflects
the Universitys 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 200001 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 didnt 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 peoples 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
childrens 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 were 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
"The grant was really a godsend," Sutherland says. "I was
really fortunate that there was a financial resource. I wouldnt
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
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. "Its hard to distinguish this kind of research
from graduate-level work when you consider the degree of ownership of
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.
Glicks interest in Elizabeth Stoddard was initially sparked by the
authors 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 wasnt popular and hasnt 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
Universitys 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.
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