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'Trying On the Rest of Their Lives'

Peter Civetta discusses Northwestern’s growing undergraduate research

How can we boost memory during sleep? Is there a way to 3-D print clean energy tools? What would it take to make theatre more inviting to children with special needs? These are among the questions tackled in recent undergraduate research projects at Northwestern.

The University has expanded undergraduate research in recent years to give more students the chance to test their problem-solving skills in the real world. In fact, students received almost $1 million in funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) last year compared to $200,000 a decade ago before the office existed.

Traditionally, most undergraduate research has occurred in science labs where the infrastructure already is in place. But today’s funding boost reflects Northwestern’s mission to fund projects relevant to whatever subject area a student finds most interesting and relevant.

“This summer we funded a project in New York City for a student who wants to direct musical theatre on Broadway,” said Peter Civetta, director of OUR. “There is no curriculum for that, so the student tapped the vast Northwestern alumni network and talked to people with that job title to create a resource for others with similar ambitions. We want every student to know that these opportunities exist.”

Once reserved for faculty and graduate students, research opportunities have changed the nature of the college experience by providing a “counterbalance,” as Civetta puts it, to the short bursts of learning that happen day-by-day throughout the year.

“We challenge students to immerse themselves in a singular question that stirs their passions and then to dig deeper for answers than they ever could in class,” Civetta said. “They have to think and collaborate in new ways in order to add meaningful knowledge to the world.”

The Office of Undergraduate Research provided funding for more than 400 student projects last year in the form of academic year and summer research, language immersion, conference travel and faculty research assistance.

The growth in funding over the past decade also reflects a key pillar of Northwestern Will, the University’s strategic plan, which highlights student learning integrated with experiences beyond the classroom.

In the last of a series of profiles exploring undergraduate research at Northwestern, Civetta talks to Northwestern News about the program.  

Can you explain the primary motive for research at the undergraduate level?

We provide students a unique opportunity to try on the rest of their lives. In research there is not one correct answer. There is a lot of mess. How do you deal with big questions, big problems and big needs? You break it down into something smaller, something doable. You have to find gaps in the current research, of course, to see where people have done this but not that. And here is a next logical step. You try to fill a need in the market. And the key is to take your amazing education and your passion and combine it all into something tightly focused that becomes your contribution, your stamp on the world.

What are some of the broader lessons for any young researcher?

In essence, you create a story, and you learn how to frame it, how to articulate it. Research requires accountability. You let a project grow, and you learn quickly how to fail. How do you deal with the fact that the data didn’t pan out as you thought it would? Where do you go from there? I’ve had students tell me that learning how to ask the right questions helps sharpen problem-solving skills that can be applied to any pursuit later in life.

What is special about Northwestern’s undergraduate research model?

Our model is based on advising. We assume students do not know how to put together a project or write a grant proposal, so we have advisors here to help guide them every step of the way. As long as they have interests they want to pursue, we can help with the rest. And since we review on a merit basis only, we can fund as many proposals as we want. The game is rigged in favor of the students. No other grant-giving program that I know of is going to tell you how to take their money.

How does research at the undergraduate level help reshape the college experience?

It’s a nice counterbalance to traditional coursework where everything is small and fast, like appetizers at a cocktail party. Everything tastes great in one bite. But do you want that for your entire meal? If you really like a particular class, then pursue it further. Build a project that’s meaningful to you and go for a grant. Dig deep and live it for a summer. And when it’s over, you can say, “I really like that,” or “I don’t like that.” Either way it’s a good outcome because you learn based on real knowledge.

What are the trends in terms of research topics?

They tend to follow the larger trends in terms of Northwestern’s strategic priorities. So you’ll see more students going abroad to work on, for example, global health problems. Traditionally, it’s been easier in labs, with a research infrastructure already in place. But this is a message for those in non-lab disciplines: research is absolutely relevant to you. Whether in the arts, journalism, documentary filmmaking and so forth, our challenge is to build a support system for students in any field.

What if you’re not ready for a full-fledged commitment to a research project?

We’ve created an alternative in the undergraduate research assistant program to entice younger students who love the idea of getting involved. Faculty hire students to contribute to existing research endeavors.

How do you get started?

The first step is to make an appointment with the advising office. Don’t wait until you have a project in mind. Come and talk when you have 16 ideas, even if they’re all different. We’ll explore each one until we find something that works. And check our website to learn more about upcoming information sessions and grant opportunities.

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