Research with faculty mentors has shaped the undergraduate experience and future career paths for many GW students.
By Kristen Mitchell
Sarah Schrup had been planning her career as a physician specializing in obstetrics and gynecology since she was in middle school. When she arrived at George Washington University as a freshman, it wasn’t long until she sought out a laboratory position on campus with a biomedical engineering professor, a coveted role she knew could help her get into a top-tier medical school one day.
She didn’t expect that research experience to fundamentally shift her academic trajectory and career aspirations.
Hours spent in the lab testing how cancer treatments affect a patient’s cardiac health sparked a passion for biomedical engineering. Ms. Schrup, now a junior in biophysics, no longer wants to be a clinician. She plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering so she can continue working in a lab and develop new technology and treatments for disease.
“Research has definitely broadened what I know about myself and what I want to do in the future,” she said. “It’s really changed my perspective on my career goals, and I’m very excited to keep going on that path now.”
Ms. Schrup was one of 10 students awarded the Undergraduate Research Award last year, which allowed her to continue her work in the summer with Professor Emilia Entcheva.
Once thought of as a pursuit for graduate students, opportunities to do independent research are now more accessible to undergraduate students than ever before. The number of undergraduate students doing research is increasing on a national level, said Elizabeth Ambos, executive officer of the Council on Undergraduate Research, an organization of researchers and colleges of which GW is a member.
“Our organization size has doubled in the last four years, and we’re also seeing over 4,000 students attend our national conference in undergraduate research, who hail from all types of institutions and do all types of research,” she said. “The growth of our organization is proof that this is rapidly growing paradigm.”
Sarah Schrup, a junior in biophysics, plans to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering so she can continue working in a lab and develop new technology and treatments for disease. (Photo provided by Sarah Schrup)
As the most competitive graduate programs seek out applicants with research experience, more students have looked to get involved early on in their academic careers. More freshmen and sophomores are thinking about how they can contribute to research in their chosen fields as faculty are more willing to bring them on.
This evolution has benefitted students in several ways, said Paul Hoyt-O’Connor, director of the GW Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research. It helps them clarify what they want to do in the future, build relationships with faculty and lay the groundwork for professional success.
“Undergraduates are doing quite remarkable work,” Dr. Hoyt-O’Connor said. They’re really making contributions.”
Thousands of students across GW participate in undergraduate research on campus with scholarships and grants the university makes available to students. From major university-wide awards like the Undergraduate Research Award to college-based stipends to cover material and conference expenses, students are increasingly taking advantage of research opportunities across all disciplines.
The Student Experience
Maeve McCool, a senior in the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, didn’t think she fit the mold of an undergraduate researcher when she submitted her proposal to study alternative gallery spaces. She assumed as a fine arts student she wouldn’t be a strong candidate for the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences’ Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowship, an award that is given to about 25 students every year and comes with a $5,000 stipend.
Ms. McCool used her funding to travel to Los Angeles, New York City and Baltimore where she interviewed nearly 30 contemporary artists about how they display their work in unexpected places—like their cars or old industrial buildings.
Ms. McCool will compile what she learned in a thesis and plans to lecture on alternative gallery spaces in the future. She hopes other art students seek out research fellowships and scholarships to expand their opportunities at GW. Research isn’t just for students interested in science, she said.
“If you want to learn things you have to seek things out,” she said. “When you do this, it becomes the one thing that you do, so you have to really want to do it. It’s an incredible experience, and I think it really takes you from the mindset of a student to this independent researcher mentality.”
Lisa Lipinski, assistant professor of art history, taught Ms. McCool as a freshman and now serves as Ms. McCool’s project mentor. The research project has boosted her former student’s knowledge, sophistication and understanding of the exhibition side of the arts, Dr. Lipinski said.
“It’s wonderful to see someone like Maeve go out there and realize there is this whole level of work people are doing and supporting the arts in a different way, and it will shape her future research,” she said.
Jose Hermina, pictured in the Wilbur V. Harlan Greenhouse, studies how wing patterns on Painted Lady butterflies are impacted by gene editing. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Jose Hermina, a senior in biology, investigates wing patterns on Painted Lady butterflies under assistant professor of biology Arnaud Martin. Dr. Martin’s lab uses gene editing technology called CRISPR to study the function of genes in making shapes and forming colors on butterfly wings. As a sophomore, Mr. Hermina was named a Harlan Scholar and had the opportunity to join the lab to learn more about this rapidly evolving field.
Mr. Hermina has continued to be involved with the lab over the past two years. This winter he committed to attend medical school after graduation and hopes to someday apply the kinds of gene editing techniques he’s learned at GW to gene therapy and fighting diseases.
“It just goes to show how this experience has made an impact on future career goals,” he said.
Angelo DeLeo, a junior from Jessup, Pa., said his research project on an annual festival brought to his hometown by immigrants from Gubbio, Italy, made him appreciate the deep cultural ties between the two cities.
Mr. DeLeo, who is majoring in international affairs and anthropology, received the Undergraduate Research Award last year to study Gubbio’s “Festa dei Ceri.” He used the funding to travel to Italy for the festival and interviewed nearly 50 locals about the tradition. He plans to use his research to make a comparative analysis between the two festivals and their traditions. His research project came from his personal experience, and he encourages other students to seek answers to the questions around them as well.
“Being able to think through these things on my own, this sort of project is a very unique opportunity for me to become more independent as a student,” he said.
Mr. DeLeo will share his work at GW Research Days in April alongside other undergraduate and graduate researchers. More than 160 undergraduate students presented posters at last year’s showcase, which marked record-high participation for the 22nd annual event. More than $5,000 in cash prizes were awarded to undergraduate students.
GW professors who work with undergraduate students on research projects said that the experience teaches students perseverance and gives them confidence to frame the kinds of questions essential for research. They also said students learn fundamentals such as running experiments and collecting data.
In the fall 2017 semester, Mollie Manier, an assistant professor of biology, had 13 undergraduate students working in her lab, which studies adaptive variation in the reproductive traits of fruit flies. Research takes what students learn in the classroom and builds on that knowledge, she said.
“You are a modern day explorer that is pushing the frontier of human knowledge, and to me, that is amazing,” Dr. Manier said.
Rachelle Heller, a SEAS professor and former associate provost who leads GW’s new Clare Boothe Luce Research Scholars Program, said working with faculty mentors provides valuable insight on how to deal with the many setbacks in research. Researchers fail more often than they succeed, she said.
“You see how this faculty member deals with frustration, how they think about new things,” she said. “Not only how they grade your term paper, but also how they solve their own projects.”
Angelo DeLeo, a junior majoring in international affairs and anthropology, traveled to Gubbio, Italy after receiving the Undergraduate Research Award. He interviewed nearly 50 locals about an annual festival. (William Atkins/ GW Today)
Support for Undergraduate Research
The Office of the Vice President Research, has launched an undergraduate research section on its website that will highlight research opportunities and resources. The office is also soliciting student essays on how research has contributed to their experience at GW. Up to five winners will be awarded $500 cash prizes. The winners will be announced at Research Days.
OVPR will also provide funds to the GW Undergraduate Review, an undergraduate student-led journal that will publish the scholarship and research of GW students across all academic fields. A group of students launching the journal plan to publish the first issue this year, available in print and online.
Vice President for Research Leo M. Chalupa said doing research is an important part of the undergraduate experience and that GW offers the opportunity to undergraduates “they wouldn’t have if they went simply to a place where faculty don’t do research.”
“My belief is that research is an invaluable experience, even if you decide you don’t want to do that later on,” Dr. Chalupa said.
Dr. Chalupa advises students to seek out research opportunities on issues for which they are passionate and to avoid taking on projects just to check a box on their resumes.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in university- and school-based grants and awards are available for undergraduate researchers. Two of the primary awards are the Undergraduate Research Award and the Luther Rice Undergraduate Research Fellowship.
Other awards are supported through endowed funds. These include the Sigelman Undergraduate Research Enhancement (SURE) Award is made possible by an endowed fund established by Carol and Lee Sigelman and the Harlan Undergraduate Research Program, a department-based award that provides funding for biology students to do research over the summer.
To learn more about what awards are available contact the GW Center for Undergraduate Fellowships and Research.