The UT College of Natural Sciences’ Freshman Research Initiative is the nation’s largest undergraduate scientific research program. Over 900 CNS students participate in the program each year. It offers all CNS students the chance to engage in undergraduate research.
For students involved in this program, research is a core part of their UT academic experience.
However, UT has yet to succeed in fully integrating research into the basic curriculum of other colleges, particularly the College of Liberal Arts.
In order to meet humanities students’ research experience needs and interests, UT must offer an integrated pathway for student research for non-STEM related fields.
The lack of opportunities for COLA students is the product of an academic bias that assumes research is a core skill for natural science students and not for humanities students.
It is also a consequence of the prevailing misconception that genuine research requires traditional hard science elements like test tubes and chemicals and bacteria.
In fact, non-STEM related fields, including my own COLA discipline of anthropology, have robust traditions of humanities-oriented research and require research skills for foundational competence.
Currently, non-CNS students can identify research assistance openings via Eureka, a database designed by UT for professors, or apply to the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program to get matched with a professor in need of research assistance.
However, these options are not well-advertised by UT and fail to reach a large number of students. I only learned about the apprenticeship program in doing research for this column.
Akshay Prabhakar, neuroscience junior and co-chair of the Senate of College Councils’ Undergraduate Research Committee, confirms this.
“So in general, from all we've seen, a lot of COLA students aren't aware that there's a lot of research going on in their field,” Prabhakar said.
To remedy this disparity in access to undergraduate research opportunities, UT must recognize research as a core component of the humanities.
Undergraduate research gives all students crucial opportunities to build connections with faculty mentors and peers. It offers experiential learning that is lacking in the classroom. It allows students to connect more deeply with course material. Fundamentally, it ensures that students have a clearer sense of the application of their studies.
There are measurable benefits to research, too.
“I spend a lot of time talking about undergraduate research and why it's important,” said Phil Butler, director of the Office for Student Success. “There are studies that show students who engage in research make better grades.”
UT can use its own successful structure — CNS’ Freshman Research Initiative — to build an undergraduate research infrastructure for non-CNS students that is more accessible.
Robert Crosnoe, associate dean of research and graduate studies for COLA, said he has already been thinking about this very solution.
“We were going to try to think big and sketch out some ideas and see what was feasible,” Crosnoe said. “Modeling on (the Freshman Research Initiative), because it's such an incredibly successful program, is certainly one of the things that we would use.”
Crosnoe believes COLA should actively encourage and support students to participate in research.
“There are students who want research opportunities but don’t know how to find them, and there are faculty that want to bring undergraduates in but don’t know how to get them,” Crosnoe said. “So that suggests that there is work to be done on the part of the college to try and do a little bit more matching.”
UT is a top-tier public research university, but this label should not just apply to STEM fields. UT must embrace its identity as a center for research and innovation for all undergraduates.
Strelitz-Block is a Plan II sophomore from Austin, Texas.