More undergrads seek grants

Michelle Ma

After doing research in South Africa during a study abroad program last fall, M. Mercedes Stickler will return to Africa to study how national parks affect the lives of local community members.

Using a $3,000 Northwestern Summer Undergraduate Research Grant, the Weinberg junior said she hopes to talk to Ugandans and “understand their thoughts about living near protected resources they can’t use.”

Stickler is one of a growing number of undergraduates seeking research grants. Almost $250,000 will go toward the URG program, in which 78 students will do research across the United States and abroad for about eight weeks this summer, said Associate Provost Stephen Fisher.

Due to increased interest and more qualified grant proposals, University President Henry Bienen gave more than $60,000 to allow 20 more undergraduates to do research this summer. The money came from the President’s Discretionary Fund, which is replenished by gifts from NU trustees and other donors.

“(Undergraduate grants are) something I’m so committed to, that to support undergraduate research here I’m willing to dip into my pockets of reserve money without batting an eyelash,” Bienen said. “There aren’t many things I’m willing to do that for.”

Student research projects range from laboratory work at NU to studying cultures abroad. Students are encouraged to pursue whatever interests them.

“The most important thing is to just ask,” Stickler said.

The university typically allots about $120,000 for summer undergraduate research, distributed into $3,000 grants for each student, Fisher said. The provost’s office contributed another $15,000 to provide more summer grants for this year’s higher number of qualified applicants.

Approaching its sixth summer, the program drew nearly 200 applicants. Most grant recipients are rising seniors who want to do research for their senior theses, said Prof. Josef Barton, chairman of the undergraduate research grants committee that selects recipients.

Rising juniors received summer grants in previous years. But this year’s competition was so tight that the committee prioritized rising seniors, who won’t have the opportunity to apply the next year.

The selection committee recommended almost 30 underclassmen– who first applied for the summer program — to other grant programs, including the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences research grant programs, Barton said.

The rise in applicants this year indicates a student body that is more research-focused, he said.

“It’s striking over the last 10 years how much more engaged students are early in their undergraduate years,” Barton said. “Partly it’s a shift in student culture, partly it reflects Northwestern’s success in recruiting stronger and stronger students, partly it’s a reflection of faculty’s greater emphasis on research.”

Student interest in research — and programs that sponsor undergraduate researchers — is also rising at NU’s peer institutions, including Duke University and University of Pennsylvania, Barton said.

NU’s program also offers academic grants during the school year of $1,000 per student. This year 53 students are conducting research with grant money, up from 33 students last year.

Students who complete summer undergraduate research with grants often choose to apply for prestigious external fellowships, including the Fulbright Scholar Program and the Rhodes Scholarship, said Christopher Hayden, a undergraduate grant adviser in the Office of Fellowships.

“Students who are doing creative, independent research are a natural fit for students who are applying for external fellowships,” Hayden said.

Students increasingly see the possibilities of studying outside the classroom, he said.

“Gradually the word is getting out to students and in some cases it’s radically changed the possibilities for a senior thesis,” Hayden said.

Reach Michelle Ma at [email protected]