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Research Experiences for Undergraduates

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By Nancy Kolsti

As an international studies major at the University of North Texas, Eliza Kelly was undecided about going on to graduate school. Then, she attended the Department of Political Science's Research Experiences for Undergraduates Site in Civil Conflict Management and Peace Science.

Michael Greig, John Ishiyama, Angela Wilson and Robby Petros

Overseeing two of UNT’s REU sites are, from left, faculty members Michael Greig and John Ishiyama in political science and Angela Wilson and Robby Petros in chemistry.

Photo by: Michael Clements

Poring over data and analyzing statistics, Kelly investigated how nations' gender equality rates — as determined by literacy, employment and political leadership — relate to the duration of peace following civil wars.

After that summer of research, she changed her major and earned her bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in peace studies. She is now in the department's master's program and also plans to earn a doctorate before working in a humanitarian field.

"Attending the summer program gave me a taste of graduate school because it's very rigorous. In 10 weeks, you finish a research paper that usually takes many months to do," says Kelly, whose research mentor was Marijke Breuning, professor of political science.

"I'm now hoping to combine humanitarian work with my interest in research."

Exceptional Programs

The National Science Foundation-funded REU sites, awarded to universities in a highly competitive process, attract undergraduate applicants from all over the nation for intensive research. In 2011, UNT offered three sites through its departments of anthropology, chemistry and political science. Over the years, the UNT sites have received more than $2 million in NSF funding.

With the goal of expanding undergraduate participation in all kinds of research, NSF reviewers often give priority to proposals showcasing unique fields. For example, the Department of Anthropology's long-running REU Site in Cultural Anthropology, which first received funding in 1999, was one of only three anthropology REUs in the nation in summer 2011 and the only one focused on cultural issues facing humans today.

Beverly Davenport, assistant professor of anthropology and director of UNT's anthropology REU from 2009 to 2011, says UNT's site also was distinctive in another way.

"It's somewhat typical for students to investigate problems related to the director's research agenda, but our students developed their own independent research projects," she says.

The Department of Chemistry's site, which started in 2004, focuses on both traditional and emerging areas of chemistry, including computational chemistry — research conducted through UNT's world-class Center for Advanced Scientific Computing and Modeling.

And the Department of Political Science's site, which began in 2010, is one of only two political science REUs in the nation and the only one for international politics.

"That speaks highly of our department," says John Ishiyama, professor of political science and REU director. "We have the only degree-granting program in peace science in the Southwest and some of the field's most noteworthy scholars, so we're ideally positioned to offer this program."

More Than an Internship

The REU students — no more than 10 at each site — work with faculty mentors, learn to use research tools effectively and focus on thinking analytically. They complete enough original research to be listed as authors or co-authors on papers prepared for journals and may receive stipends from the REUs to present their research at professional conferences.

Doug Henry, Beverly Davenport and Afshan Kamrudin

Faculty members Doug Henry, left, and Beverly Davenport, right, were directors of UNT’s long-running anthropology REU site. Afshan Kamrudin, center, winner of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and former REU participant, is looking forward to a career in community health.

Photo by: Michael Clements

"We want their time here to result in something more than just a lab internship," says Angela Wilson, Regents Professor of chemistry and director of the chemistry REU. "The REU experience rolls off the resumé as prior participants progress in their careers, but a listing as a co-author of a scientific journal publication is more permanent."

All of UNT's REU sites have admitted applicants from universities across the nation. Barbara Walton was a junior at Central Connecticut State University when she attended the chemistry REU in 2007. She focused on analytical chemistry with applications in forensics, working in the lab of Guido Verbeck, assistant professor of chemistry. She became the co-author of a paper published in the Journal of Forensic Science in 2010.

Now a chemistry doctoral student at UNT, Walton says attending the REU also offered her a chance to learn more about graduate school, since Central Connecticut State doesn't have a chemistry graduate program.

"Working in Dr. Verbeck's research group definitely influenced my decision to come back to UNT," says Walton, who plans a career as a researcher and faculty member.

The Chance to Shine

Doug Henry, associate professor of anthropology who served as director or co-director of the anthropology REU for nine years, says receiving 12 years of funding for the site was unusual.

"REUs are usually a short-term project from one faculty member. We were very lucky to have all anthropology faculty support our program, and that's evident in the quality of research the students produced and what they have accomplished since attending," Henry says.

Davenport says that because the students worked on independent projects, they were selected for the REU "based on their ability to articulate research interests."

"It was thrilling for them to realize that this research was their very own. The program gave students who hadn't had opportunities for prior research the chance to shine," she says.

The REU site admitted more than 100 students over the years. Henry says students from community and junior colleges, first-generation college students and students from groups underrepresented in the social sciences were particularly recruited.

He notes that, nationally, only 35 percent of those with bachelor's degrees in social sciences apply to graduate school, with the percentage much lower for students in underrepresented groups.

But a survey of UNT's past anthropology REU students shows that 75 percent of those who attended from 2000 to 2002 applied to a graduate program in anthropology, law, medicine, public administration or public health. The percentage increased to 100 percent for the 2008 participants.

"The fact that so many of our students applied after attending made our program very special," Henry says.

Rewarding Research

Afshan Kamrudin — winner of a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship — says her research in the 2008 anthropology REU site led her to the master's program in public health at Atlanta's Emory University, where she graduated in May 2011.

Kamrudin was a psychology major, an Honors College student and a McNair Scholar at UNT. For the REU, she continued her research with Henry and Mark Vosvick, associate professor of psychology and director of UNT's Center for Psychosocial Health, analyzing HIV-positive women's perceptions of stigma.

"The summer program changed everything. I realized that anthropology was the field for me, because I wanted to focus on the holistic view of what it means to be healthy and how communities can impact physical and mental health," says Kamrudin, now a doctoral student in medical anthropology at Southern Methodist University looking forward to a career in community health.

The REU directors say that not only do the students go on to successful careers, but many others benefit from their contributions. Wilson has encountered past participants at professional conferences after they have completed doctoral degrees.

"It's rewarding to learn about their career decisions and all they've accomplished," she says. "And they tell others about the quality of research at UNT and how the summer program made a difference for them."

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Web page last updated or revised: March 15, 2012
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