Undergraduate research needs innovation to increase inclusivity

Tejas Choudhary

Like many other places at UT, the Robert Lee Moore Hall on the north side of campus can incite a wide range of emotions in its visitors. From awe at watching the far-away constellations through its observatory to disturbance by the controversial history of its eponym, RLM can impose itself in multiple ways. Most surprisingly, however, RLM can also intimidate. Sights of huge laser devices blowing up objects and the deafening sounds from futuristic equipment can be frightening to those not familiar with them.

The quality of research that is conducted in these basements of RLM, among several other places on campus, is very impressive. Undergraduate students at UT have always managed to push boundaries through their research. Students have studied galaxies and the formation of sub-atomic particles and have been successfully running one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world.

“Almost 55 percent of the undergraduate students at UT conduct research outside of their coursework during their college career,” said Robert Reichle, senior program coordinator at the office of undergraduate research.

But statistics like these, coupled with a plethora of research dedicated activities like the undergraduate research journal, research week and research bazaar, portray an image of undergraduate research that may be quite different from reality.

While the numbers are strong for a university as big as ours, many undergraduates still complain that they struggle to find professors with research areas that might interest them. Others are frustrated by the lack of information about the available research positions, many of which are filled through internal recruitment processes.

“Before I started my research, I had no idea about what I would be expected to do on daily basis”, said Abhishek Ramchandani, an economics junior and undergraduate research assistant in the business school. “Students could really use more information about research projects and what their responsibilities might be in the research teams.”

The problems seem to be severe in the school of business and certain departments of engineering. Although the office of undergraduate research has established resources such as EUREKA — a website dedicated to matching students to researchers and professors — the problems of an aspiring researcher are far from resolved.

The biggest challenge with undergraduate research is the lack of cohesion between different parties. Professors tend to operate on a different wavelength from those of students and administrators, and this keeps students from finding the positions they desire.

“Many professors expect students to contact them for a position,” Reichle said, “but this model can be intimidating for a student who has no knowledge of the research field.”

Professors often assign their masters and Ph.D. students with the task of staffing their research projects this greatly reduces the student-professor interactions. Another challenge is a lack of information to the students. Undergraduates with little information about the benefits and opportunities of research are less likely to go out of the way to seek involvement in research projects.

Much of the latter problem has been addressed by programs like the College of Natural Sciences’ freshman research initiative, where underclassmen are involved in research from an early stage of their college life. The school of engineering has been planning to roll out a similar program, but other colleges need to follow the example and establish a formalized student-researcher pairing program to take the burden off of students’ shoulders and make the possibility of doing research an actuality.

Choudhary is a finance and civil engineering junior from Mumbai.