20 years of undergrad research

This year, Carnegie Mellon’s Undergraduate Research Office (URO) celebrates its 20th anniversary. The office is best known for its Small Undergraduate Research Grant (SURG) program, which funds the research projects of students in all disciplines each semester. The office also runs the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, in which students can stay on campus to perform research during the summer term.

According to Jen Weidenhof, program coordinator for the URO, “[The SURG program] gives students a starting block for research in graduate school, and gives non-science students the opportunity to work on a project that may or may not be in their discipline.”

About 250 students each year receive grants, she explained. Individual students usually receive grants of $500 per semester, while groups can receive up to $1000. Fellowship recipients are awarded $3500, meant to finance living expenses and make research a viable financial option for students who would otherwise get paid summer jobs or internships. Both programs are funded by the Office of the Provost, along with corporate and private donors.

Although the URO has been funding such student research projects for the past 20 years, undergraduate research at Carnegie Mellon began well before the institution of the URO. In the 1970s, professor of biological sciences Elizabeth Jones began integrating undergraduate students into the strong research-based fabric of the university within the Mellon College of Science. The resulting initiatives were small scale and department-controlled, usually in the form of a research seminar or a senior honors thesis project.

The SURG program was started in 1989 by Barbara Lazarus and her assistant, Jessie Ramey, as a way to get undergraduates directly involved in research. They also made an effort to centralize the research process so students could find professors who were doing research in different departments on campus. The program was aimed at encouraging students to design their own projects on an interdisciplinary level. These programs were then consolidated into a single office called the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI), which in 2002 was renamed the Undergraduate Research Office.

“Carnegie Mellon was one of the first schools to seize upon undergraduate research as an important part of the undergraduate experience,” said Stephanie Wallach, director of the URO. “Students are more likely to make career decisions based research experience, whether it’s a lab experience, doing research with a faculty member, or working on their own project, than on a career workshop.”

Today, undergraduate students can perform research in a number of ways outside of the SURG program. Students can become involved in research through their academic department or college, often working in a professor’s lab on an already-existing project. Students in most departments can also pursue a semester-long independent study for credit in a topic that interests them with the help of a faculty mentor. Seniors can apply to do a senior honors thesis in which they design their own year-long project or research paper.

No matter how their research is performed, all students who have completed or are currently working on a research project may present at Meeting of the Minds, a campus-wide research symposium that takes over the University Center for one day a year in early May.

But the URO’s work isn’t over. The office is continually thinking of ways to improve the range of services it offers. New this year is the ISURG program, a joint venture with the Office of International Education, which is directed at students who want to undertake a research project while they are studying abroad. ISURG is the first of the URO’s programs to support undergraduate research off campus, Wallach explained.

In the coming weeks, The Tartan will profile the work of undergraduates and their professors who have recently completed or are currently performing research on campus.