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Students dedicate fall break to funded research

| Wednesday, October 4, 2017

During fall break, Notre Dame undergraduates will explore a wide range of research topics through funding from entities such as the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the College of Science and the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA).

The Nanovic Institute will send 11 students to 10 countries, including France, Spain, England, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium, Ireland, Switzerland and the Netherlands, Christine Stump, student coordinator of the Nanovic Institute, said.

Independent research can be a transformative experience for students, Stump said.

“It increases so much their own understanding of the context of the particular thing they’re trying to find out,” she said. “There’s just so much learning that goes on through that process.”

Jeffrey Thibert, director of CUSE, said in an email that conducting research offers opportunities for growth in more than just scholarly knowledge.

“In addition to gaining experience that is relevant to a particular field of study, planning and implementing a research project teaches students how to be clearer writers (so they can produce a strong grant proposal), how to prepare a budget, how to adapt to unexpected challenges that inevitably arise in the pursuit of research and how to disseminate their findings in a way that has an impact on a field of study and, hopefully, on a community,” he said.

Stump said students have the ability to contribute to the global conversation about their topic.

“Student projects can actually add to the wealth of understanding about a particular topic because they’re researching things that are pretty new,” she said. “We even see students’ work being referred to by others and it actually becomes part of the body of knowledge about that topic.”

While limited funding makes it impossible for Nanovic to award grants to every applicant, Stump said the institute wants to fund as many students as possible.

“We are very much in the business of wanting to support students …” she said. “We are here to cheer them on, and we want to empower students to do incredible things.”

Stump said a strong research proposal incorporates three main components: a strong, feasible research question, a methodology structured to answer that question and a driving purpose.

“We want to see what the fruits of the labor are,” she said. “What does the student propose to do with the learning?” 

Stump also said students can gain cultural insights from their time abroad.

“Students come back with a new compassion, oftentimes a new appreciation, for those … who see the world differently,”  she said.

Kati Schuler, student programming coordinator of CUSE, said thus far, CUSE has awarded four grants for research over fall break, and the selection process will continue into the coming week.

“The hardest part of reviewing grant applications is that there are more good projects than funding available” she said in an email. “We can therefore only fund very high-quality proposals.” 

Senior Nicolle Ho will travel to Paris during fall break on a Nanovic grant to continue the work she did with the Institute Pasteur over the summer. She will continue writing computer programs that analyze data for a lab studying mycobacterium tuberculosis.  

“I very much enjoy getting to mix my interest in math and modeling and telling stories with data with also using French,” she said.

Ho said she has also examined tussock plants in the Arctic and deeply studied the presence of Vietnamese communities in France through grants from both ISLA and CUSE.

“The first grant that I wrote was very difficult; the second and third and so forth became much easier,” she said. “I think you learn a lot from designing that methodology from the beginning. This is your problem. This is your vision. This is what you want to solve. How are you going to do that?” 

She said her research abroad has been a transformative experience.  

“I’ve been very much changed by the people I’ve met in France, and I’ve been very much changed by the people I’ve worked with here,” Ho said.

Senior Emily Gust, will travel to both London and Edinburgh during fall break in order to study the origins of the unsuccessful 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.

She spent the spring semester in London as part of the Kennedy Scholars program, which is designed to help students refine their research topics for their senior theses.

Gust said she is looking forward to the greater freedom that comes with delving into her independent research, but is also aware of the planning it requires, compared to the more structured Kennedy Scholars program.

“I think it’s a really good way to learn how to structure your time and move forward with a goal by making plans for yourself rather than having a curriculum making the plans for you,” she said.

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