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Undergrad research director announced

Marcela Berrios | Friday, August 31, 2007

The most recent product of University President Father John Jenkins and Provost Thomas Burish’s public commitment to research is the appointment of former Assistant Dean of the Graduate School Cecilia Lucero to be the new director of undergraduate research.

The newly created position is designed “to expand research opportunities for undergraduates … and to encourage current and entering students to participate in research,” Vice President and Associate Provost for Undergraduate Studies Dennis Jacobs said Thursday.

Jacobs said Lucero was chosen to fill this position because her years as an academic advisor and assistant dean of First Year of Studies have made her familiar with undergraduate students and what the University will need to do to engage them in more research projects.

“Roughly 30 percent of students do undergraduate research currently, and I’m hoping that by reaching out to students, especially first and second-year students, we can increase that percentage,” she said in a news release shortly after taking office last May.

Lucero said one way she hopes to get the word out is through the development of a Web site where students can find all the information and pointers they need to get started on a research project.

“There have been many undergraduate research opportunities available to students for years but many people don’t know about them because all the information hasn’t been centralized,” she said.

Currently, students interested in conducting individual research can go to different centers, institutes and offices on campus to find the financial and academic support they may need to get started. The Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) has been giving students research grants for more than a decade.

Science and engineering students can also receive financial support for their research proposals from programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation, Lucero said. Another alternative may be side-by-side participation in the research endeavors of faculty and graduate students.

Those options, however, are scattered throughout the University and may be difficult to locate, she said. She hopes the Web site – which should be ready for the spring semester – will help students identify these possibilities easily.

Lucero said there might be a portion of the Web site dedicated to individual profiles that students can set up – profiles that could include explanations of their fields of study, expertise, interests and other pertinent information. Faculty members would check these profiles to be paired up with undergraduate research assistants. In the same way, students would be able to browse different faculty profiles to find potential mentors or academic advisors.

“It would be a more coordinated effort to try to get students and faculty together,” Lucero said. “… It’s a great for students to meet the faculty and start developing the mentoring relationships that are key to the success of undergraduate research and the student’s college career as well.”

She is aware, nonetheless, that students may require additional incentives to commit to an ongoing research project.

That is why she and Jacobs also have emphasized the need to improve the publication prospects for any works undergraduate researchers may complete.

Jacobs said Lucero’s role will also include “helping students disseminate their research findings through presentations and publications to provide recognition for those students who have excelled at research.”

Lucero said she’s working on a commercial that would air during home football games. The clip might talk about the research activities of students and professors – a nod to researchers’ hard work.

She is also eyeing a campus-wide fair where undergraduate students could exhibit their research accomplishments.

Last May, the College of Science hosted a “Day of Research” where students presented their findings to their peers and professors, and prizes were given to the top projects. Lucero said she wishes a campus-wide research fair could provide students from other colleges a similar opportunity to share their work with the campus community. The logistics and coordination of a fair of that magnitude, however, make that scenario unlikely right now, she said.

This semester, she said, she’ll focus on launching the Web site and developing one-credit seminars for second-semester freshmen who demonstrate an interest in conducting individual research.

The seminars would introduce freshmen to different research methodologies, helping them learn to write grant proposals, track their findings and present them.

Lucero said she might help create different seminars for five possible fields of research – social sciences, arts and humanities, science, engineering and business. Students in the seminars would be identified by their academic advisors or professors during their first semester as freshmen and encouraged to enroll in the class.

And she doesn’t expect to have problems finding driven, enthusiastic students.

Sophomore Jeff Lakusta has been researching the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa with some help from the University. During a trip to the country, he became interested in the health crisis and founded a non-profit organization, the Eyes on Africa Foundation, to raise money to sponsor his relief opportunities and his research in the region.

“Father [James] Foster is working with me both on the research side for my project and helping spread the word for the new foundation,” Lakusta said. “Notre Dame has already proven to be an incredible resource, and the willingness of faculty to get personally involved in their student’s interests is inspiring.”

Another student who has demonstrated undergraduate students are involved in research projects is senior Andrew Harms. He said his work with radio technologies has helped him prepare for graduate school. His findings in the lab complement the classroom, and he has enjoyed working closely with the electrical engineering faculty.

“Almost every faculty member in the [Electrical Engineering] department is more than happy to talk with students and work with students who are interested in research,” he said. “Most professors have projects lying around but lack the manpower needed to do everything.  Even younger students like sophomores, or even freshmen, can find some great projects to work on.”

To help students like Lakusta and Harms, Jacobs said, the University will continue to develop the infrastructure and the resources students need to conduct research.