Perhaps it represents a revival of intellectual curiosity, or, more cynically, a fine way to burnish one’s grad-school credentials. Whatever the motivation, increasing numbers of UVA undergraduates are voluntarily taking on independent research—some even without receiving academic credit.
No single office tracks undergraduate research activity across Grounds, but anecdotal evidence is telling. In the past, the University received “50 or 60” grant applications for its 40 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards, says Juliana Schroeder (Col ’08), who chairs the Undergraduate Research Network; in 2005, there were 184. URN-sponsored research workshops regularly draw 50 or more students. A journal, Oculus, publishes student research papers, and symposiums each spring and fall allow students to present their work.
As research activity has increased, so have funding opportunities, says Schroeder. One hot ticket these days: Center for Global Health scholarships, which allow faculty-mentored students to travel to “resource-limited settings” and combine their research with public service. Last year, the center received more than 50 applications for 27 grants.
Students almost universally express excitement at the ability to take their education beyond the classroom, often working alongside faculty members. But there is also an element of self-interest, Schroeder acknowledges. “To be really competitive for graduate school, you have to be doing research at some level.”
Here’s how a half-dozen students used research to enhance their educations.
Third-year/Latin American Studies and Spanish
It started with an assignment for her Portuguese 301 class: read a Brazilian newspaper once a week. That set in motion a chain of events that sent Staley to Fortaleza, Brazil, and may eventually propel her toward a foreign-service career.
Domestic violence was a theme that echoed through the columns of the newspapers Staley read. One article, on women-staffed police stations for domestic violence victims, drew particular interest. “It seemed very progressive,” she says. She applied for and received financial assistance from the Center for Global Health to take a closer look.
Staley spent nine weeks observing at a Fortaleza police station. Women make a complaint at the station, then meet with a police officer. The officer, in turn, seeks to arrange a meeting between the victim and her assailant, often with the goal, Staley observes, of reaching an out-of-court resolution.
Outside the station, Staley found a disheartening lack of support for women seeking to make a transition from a violent household to a more productive life. “It has really made me recognize how fortunate I am to live in a country in which I as a female have full rights,” she says.
“I really wanted to go somewhere unique, and South Africa sounded unique,” says Germanow, who got his ticket last spring through the School for International Training. The experiential-based program, which places American students with host families, carries a research requirement. He considered something relating to his major, but “I figured I could always do a religious studies project,” he says. Instead, he indulged another passion—soccer—and examined the potential impact that hosting the 2010 World Cup will have on Durban, a city of 3.5 million.
Predicting financial impacts proved elusive, but Germanow—a manager for UVA’s men’s soccer team—noted that the event has the potential to promote further racial reconciliation. There ought to be enough resources to continue building low-cost housing as well, he finds. Still, he sounded a cautious note. “People are overjoyed to host the competition,” he says, “but when it gets down to the nuts and bolts and paying for it, people realize they have to be careful.”
Second-year/Foreign Affairs and Economics
When Parameswaran’s Cavalier Daily columns seemed to reflect a certain preoccupation with Asian terror movements, his editors pulled him aside. “They basically told me, ‘Remember your audience,’” he recalls.
Though Americans may be more interested in al Qaeda and Iraq than Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah movement, Parameswaran comes by his interest honestly, having grown up in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. Last summer, he returned to Malaysia to pore over Southeast Asian literature on Indonesia’s Islamist movement and U.S. counter-terrorism efforts. He concludes that the American view of Jemaah Islamiyah as a radical, extremist organization with close ties to al Qaeda is somewhat lacking. The group’s aims are more domestic than international, he says, and a small but significant minority of Indonesians, about 17 percent, support its goals. “We don’t even have the right analytical tools to find out who this group really is,” he says.
Pilat will receive three credit hours from the Engineering School for his participation in the ecoMOD program, a joint effort with the School of Architecture to design and build environmentally sustainable modular housing. But if that were his only motivation, he would have quit a long time ago. “To be honest with you, it’s not nearly enough for the time we put in,” he says. He certainly wouldn’t be planning to continue working on the project past graduation in May.
Pilat and fellow engineering students Jon Zimmerman and Ernest Bowden are focusing on one corner of the project: remote, wireless monitoring. One thrust of their work may allow researchers to identify which appliances get turned on and when, merely by tapping into the main stream of power into the house. “We are also trying to see energy consumption trends over the course of the day,” Pilat says.
Another thrust is medical; sensors in a mattress might detect breathing patterns, heart rates and restlessness at night, while floor vibration monitors track movements—information that could be captured and relayed over the Internet to a doctor.
Backed by the Center for Global Health, Shamir traveled to Thailand with plans to research the effectiveness of AIDS prevention programs among the “hill tribe” people of the Upper Mekong, where poverty and political disenfranchisement conspire to force many into the sex industry. When she arrived, though, she found an even more oppressed population: immigrants from Burma, Cambodia and Laos, whose plight is less known.
Few programs even attempt to deliver anti-retroviral drugs to the immigrants, Shamir says, and immigrants’ wages for doing the “dirty and most dangerous” jobs in Thailand are less than $2 per day. Most are not even registered with the government; that is the responsibility of employers, who have no incentive to do so, she says.
The first national conference on migrant health was organized while Shamir visited, but it was not well publicized; Shamir found a hospital that was piloting a program to distribute ARV medication to migrants was not even aware of it. “I would like to see more collaboration between organizations there,” she says.
Hartberger enjoyed science in high school, but when he arrived at UVA he sought to expand his horizons. He explored a variety of classes in his first year, but “something was missing,” he says: science.
So it was back to the lab, where he found work with a professor seeking to isolate a biological marker for lupus—a particular interest for Hartberger, who has an aunt with the disease. “My main interest is doing something relevant for people,” he says.
Last summer, he worked in the analytical chemistry lab of professor James P. Landers, where he pursued a new process for isolating and testing DNA in blood using a technology that involves etching tiny capillaries on glass chips. The process has the potential to test more samples in a shorter time with less chemical reagents and fewer people, he says.
Hartberger, who plans to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry after spending a year in Teach for America, is now totally hooked on research. “You go into a classroom to learn concepts,” he says. “Going into a lab allows you to really think about them.”