Advancing Undergraduate Research

Three new fellowships help further student research at GW.

July 12, 2010

By Caitlin Carroll

When Sally Nuamah studied abroad in Ghana last year, she taped nearly 40 interviews with girls and women in the West African country. She asked them an array of questions about their academic experiences and perceptions of their abilities, but kept asking herself the same one: What are they doing in Ghana that we are not doing in the U.S.?

Struck by the articulate and intellectual responses, particularly from the students from low-income, single-parent families who attended under-resourced schools, the political science major’s curiosity continued after returning to campus.

She is now creating a documentary based on the interviews and is returning to Ghana this year to continue her research thanks to a $10,000 award, a faculty mentor and the beginnings of a research project titled “Educate a Woman, Educate a Nation: The Determinants of Academic Success for Female Students in Ghana.”

Ms. Nuamah is one of three undergraduate students who received a new $10,000 award announced today by the Office of the Vice President for Research, led by vice president Leo M. Chalupa, to conduct a research project over the upcoming academic year.

Awarded for the first time this year, the research fellowships cover research-related expenditures, including payment for students’ time, travel, living expenses, equipment and supplies. The fellowships were open to research based in the sciences, humanities, business, policy, international affairs or any other subject so long as it answered a research question.

“It’s a huge deal for someone to trust you to take on a project like this,” says Ms. Nuamah, who will be a senior this year. “It makes me realize that I’m being given an opportunity to make a larger impact. I want to have a lasting effect on a large population of people.”

Undergraduates Lisa Hartland and Justin Shafa also received research fellowships. Ms. Hartland will study the oil industry in Ecuador, while Mr. Shafa will examine the biological basis of autism.

Ms. Hartland is also expanding research based in her study abroad experience. While listening to a lecture from a petroleum company employee in Ecuador, Ms. Hartland started questioning the company’s social and environmental responsibilities to the indigenous communities. The Spanish and international affairs major will travel to Ecuador this year to continue researching her project “Petroleum and State in Ecuador: Corporate Social Responsibility to the Amazon's Indigenous.”

“This type of funding and recognition as an undergraduate is empowering. It lets me know that someone else supports the ideas that I've already been building on,” says Ms. Hartland. “What an incredible honor to receive the resources to pursue them.”

Mr. Shafa, who is entering the second year of a combined seven-year bachelor’s and medical degree program, got his idea for a research project from a freshman dean’s seminar. Mr. Shafa will use research funds to examine brain tissue and its implications for understanding autism’s biological, as opposed to developmental, factors.

“It’s something that is getting a lot of attention and is largely unknown,” Mr. Shafa says. “We’re trying to do things that haven’t been done before.”

For Mr. Shafa, receiving this award so early in his college career is especially significant“I want to be able to stay with a project and see how it grows and be a part of its development. A lot of kids work in a lab for a summer, but hopefully I can be a part of this project for upcoming years,” says Mr. Shafa, whose project is called “Investigation of Differential Expression of RORA Targets in Autistic Brain.”

Twenty-five research proposals were submitted for two awards, but the Office of the Vice President for Research chose to award three fellowships due to the quality of the proposals.

“The number of applications for these fellowships was more than I expected,” says Dr. Chalupa. “Because of the high quality of these research proposals, next year I plan to increase the number of awards. The message that I hope these fellowships convey is that at GW research is a shared endeavor between faculty and students.”

Cynthia McClintock, professor of political science and international affairs; Steven Balla, associate professor of political science, public policy and public administration, and international affairs; and Valerie Hu, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, will serve as faculty mentors for the projects.