Q&A: Research and BC

Q&A: Research and BC

Boston College has cultivated a national reputation for its academic excellence as well as its Jesuit and Catholic character. But how does research fit into the picture? Associate Vice President for Research Michael Smyer, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke about the subject in an interview with the Boston College Chronicle.

Chronicle: The popular view of research is professors shut away in their offices and laboratories, working for months, even years, on projects that may or may not have some practical value. But you see it as something far different, especially at a place like Boston College.

Smyer: Boston College is a community of research-active faculty focused on students. Reflecting our mission, we seek to bring to the nation's top tier of universities a distinctive Catholic, Jesuit perspective. We're successful when we integrate our faculty's research and our students' learning. For example, we now attract undergraduates and graduate students who are attracted by the research-active climate at BC. Even in their first year, undergrads are increasingly seeing ways to work collaboratively with faculty on research and scholarship.

Michael Smyer: "We're successful when we integrate our faculty's research and our students' learning." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Another distinctive aspect of our research climate is a focus on pressing human concerns, such as retirement and Social Security, or helping urban schools meet the needs of students and their families.

The research of our student and faculty is often linked to the world around us. Moreover, whether it is basic or applied work, scholarship is vital to the intellectual life of the University.

Chronicle: Let's take a closer look at these points. In what ways does research at BC tie into a student's learning experience?

Smyer : One very good example is the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program. Since it began in 1994, hundreds of students - including more than 230 during this academic year - have had the opportunity to work closely with faculty from all four undergraduate schools on research projects.

These students perform a variety of research tasks that give them a great insight into their field or discipline. They carry out research, learn about the process, and at the same time learn more about themselves and their own potential as scholars. While faculty members benefit from the assistance, the students get as much, or more, out of the experience. This program embodies the integration of research and learning for which we are striving.

Chronicle : Can you elaborate on your point about the "pressing human problems" that research at Boston College addresses?

Smyer : Most universities have a variety of research emphases. BC is distinctive, however, in its explicit commitment to focusing our faculty and student talents on issues of great social concern, an emphasis consistent with our Jesuit heritage. This is reflected in the relatively large emphasis on work in the social and behavioral sciences. It's also reflected in many individual projects in which our faculty and students invest their time and energy.

For example, talk to people in Allston and Brighton and you'll hear how happy they are with the Gardner Elementary School Extended Services Program. BC faculty and students are there week in and week out, helping to provide tutoring and other kinds of educational support, but also health and legal services, adult GED and ESL classes. It's a whole new vision for the relationship between urban schools and their host communities. At the same time, those same faculty and students are evaluating the impact of the extended services approach, on the lives and well-being of children and families, and on the educational experience of BC undergraduate and graduate students.

Or consider the activities of colleagues in the Graduate School of Social Work like Karen Kayser, who has developed couples therapy for breast cancer patients, and Kevin Mahoney, who is leading a major national study of home and community-based services for the disabled.

Of course, many centers also contribute to the intellectual life of the University through their research and work with students.

The Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation and Educational Policy has done outstanding work for a number of years on high stakes testing, including most recently their two-year study of state-level testing programs.

Similarly, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life has sponsored a number of scholarly events, like the conference on school choice and the series of forums on belief and non-belief begun last fall with Atlantic Monthly . >

These are but a few examples of scholarly work at BC that contributes to the accumulation of knowledge yet also serves the public interest. Another example is the Center for Retirement Research. It actually grew out of a Jesuit Institute seminar on aging and ethics, which included Alicia Munnell, who went on to become the center's director. Now it has solid funding from the Social Security Administration, and just last week co-sponsored a conference that featured President Bush's top economic advisor Larry Lindsey.

Chronicle : How does an event like the school choice conference qualify as "research"?

Smyer: A forum like the Boisi Center conference or the Social Security conference is a form of scholarship: an attempt to bring together the best-thinking minds on an important topic. One of the marks of a mature university is its capacity to gather the best thinkers on a topic, whether or not the participants are all part of single institution, which is rarely the case on any important topic.

So, yes, when you gather outstanding scholars for the purpose of increasing our knowledge and understanding of a particular topic, that is a very important form of scholarship.

Chronicle : What kind of yardstick do you use to measure the progress of research at Boston College?

Smyer : When we presented the University Academic Planning Council strategic plan to the Board of Trustees four years ago, we outlined a number of indicators of success in research and scholarship: increases in the honors that our faculty and students receive, such as Fulbrights, Mellons, National Science Foundation Fellowships and Guggenheims; an improved ability to attract and retain outstanding students at the undergraduate and graduate levels; and an improved ability to attract and retain research-active faculty dedicated to the integration of research and learning. On all fronts, we have done very well over the last six years.

Chronicle : Earlier this month, we heard that BC achieved more success in the annual competition for fellowships: 13 national scholarships, including four Fulbrights.

Smyer : Yes, and a lot of credit goes to Don Hafner, who has done a great job as head of our University Fellowship Committee. As Don will tell you, the contact with faculty via research and mentoring activities has been instrumental in helping BC students strengthen their application for these awards.

Of course, some of our students have been successful without having research-intensive experiences. But in the case of many fellowships, like the Marshall or Rhodes, the review committee assesses the student's capacity for independent study. One good predictor for that capacity is previous research experience, so it's not surprising that BC's increasing success in pursuing the most competitive fellowships is paralleled by increasing research expertise and activity.

There are other promising developments, such as BC's acceptance this year, for the first time, into the Beckman Scholars Program, which supports outstanding undergraduate students in chemistry and biological sciences in carrying out research with faculty mentors. The Beckman Scholars are supported at 14 elite institutions in the United States, and being on the list now puts us in some very good company.

You also can look at the kind of accolades and honors our faculty and students receive. For example, a molecular motor developed by Ross Kelly, our Vanderslice Professor of Chemistry, was selected as one of the important scientific achievements of the last 25 years by the American Chemical Society.

Another example is a graduate student, Michaela Ranes, who recently won the master's thesis award from the Northeastern Association of Graduate Schools, another first for BC. Michaela started out as a work-study student in her sophomore year working in Thomas Seyfried's biology lab and eventually earned her master's degree. Her success shows the importance of early undergraduate research involvement and working closely with faculty throughout one's college career.

Another metric of success is, when we presented the UAPC plans, external funding for research activities was about 7 percent of the operating budget. We projected that continuing success in this area would keep external funding at approximately 7 percent, which is where we are. In other words, even though we've doubled external funding for research during the last six years, the research growth has been paralleled by the overall growth in the University budget.

Chronicle : What factors are likely to affect sponsored research at BC, positively or negatively, in the immediate future?

Smyer : Well, there are things over which we don't really have any control, most notably the state of the economy. If there is a severe impact on the private sector, it could cause a decrease in funding for research and development. Similarly, it remains to be seen what, if any, new trends there might be in terms of federal or state funding.

That's why within the University we are continuing to look at ways we can stay, or become even more competitive for research funding. The success we've had in recent years is due in large part to the efforts of the offices of Research Administration, Corporate and Foundation Relations and Grants and Contracts Management. They've worked tirelessly to help administrators, faculty and students navigate the process of finding and obtaining funds. Now, we want to ensure we make the best and most efficient use of those efforts.

To accomplish this, we are establishing an Office of Sponsored Programs, whose director we are currently searching for. The idea is to reconfigure the functions of the three offices so as to offer a "one-stop shopping" model. Each will have a presence in this new office to assist with the external funding process: the entrepreneurial phase, where you match an idea to a funding source; the development and submission of the proposal; and the award management phase, where you align the funding with the University budget and audit system.

Chronicle : You are confident, then, that Boston College can carve out a niche in higher education funding?

Smyer : Our continuing success relies upon integrating external funding with central aspects of our mission, whether it is integrating research and learning, or faculty and staff activities and student formation. For example, an important award BC received this academic year - with [Vice President for University Mission and Ministry] Fr. Joseph Appleyard, SJ, and [Center for Ignatian Spirituality Director] Fr. Howard Gray, SJ, providing leadership - was a $2 million grant from the Lilly Foundation to establish a program, Intersections, focused on student formation and vocational choice. That, to me, is real success: Getting an outside benefactor to underwrite a series of activities exploring questions that lie at the heart of our mission as a Jesuit and Catholic institution. It speaks to what BC is all about.


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