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Exploration article

At Boston College’s inaugural Research Day on December 11, five juniors and six seniors set up posters showcasing research in global public health they had conducted as apprentices to Boston College professors. Over the course of two hours, the students spoke with faculty, fellow undergraduates, and interested alumni, sharing what they’d learned on subjects ranging from neurological sex differences in rats to the effects of stress on third-year medical school students’ patient empathy.

faculty greeting fellows

The presentation represented a scant sample of the range and depth of faculty-led and independent research projects Boston College undergraduates are currently pursuing. This year, 165 research fellows in the College of Arts and Sciences alone are working with faculty in 20 departments. More than 60 fellows work with faculty in the Higgins and Merkert Hall laboratories, reflecting a 38 percent increase in the number of natural science majors over the past decade. But a number of A&S students are doing research in fields as disparate as fine arts, theology, and political science. Meanwhile, another 30 students in the Carroll School of Management, 60 in the Lynch School of Education, and 50 in the Connell School of Nursing are engaged in faculty research projects as well.

Boston College has significantly bolstered funding for undergraduate research projects in the past two decades for two reasons, says Vice Provost for Research and Academic Planning Thomas Chiles. For one thing, it has become crucial for undergraduates, especially those in the natural sciences, to conduct research if they expect to enter top graduate programs. For another, the University is responding to the demands of “much higher caliber” students more than it has in the past. “They’re increasingly challenging the faculty,” says Chiles, who joined the biology faculty in 1992. “Now it’s much more of an intellectual dialogue.” And parents and students seriously considering Boston College now ask about specific laboratory, history, and mathematics projects during the admissions process.

One-on-one training with faculty

In 1997, the University established the Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, which supports more than 200 student apprentices to research faculty, who typically nominate students in their classes to assist their research projects. Fellowships are awarded for the spring, summer, and fall, and fellows can work up to 20 hours a week in the academic year, 40 during the summer and semester breaks. (Students cannot apply directly to the program but are encouraged to discuss projects they’re interested in with a departmental fellowship sponsor.)

girl studying in lab with professor

The fellowships give students opportunities to “work with a master” and see “how their scholarship can be applied to producing knowledge,” says Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences William Petri, who coordinates the program. In a research setting, more so than in the classroom, faculty can “actually see how the student’s mind works” and can write “a very personal letter of recommendation,” adds Petri. “It’s win, win, win, win.”

Since the spring of her freshman year, biology major Nirali Patel ’15 has assisted in Biology Professor Welkin Johnson’s Viruses, Genes, and Evolution Lab on a project tracing the evolutionary history of endogenous retroviruses. In what she calls “one of my most rewarding experiences at Boston College,” Patel has been examining DNA sequences found on both humans and Old World primates using the lab’s bioinformatics and polymerase chain reaction technology. “The hands-on approach,” she says, “makes abstract concepts a tangible reality." It has given her “a whole new appreciation for the science.”

Theodore Kontopolous ’15, meanwhile, spends 20 hours a week digging through archives as a fellow for two political science faculty members, Lindsey O’Rourke and David DiPasquale. He is researching the Central Intelligence Agency’s involvement in the Angolan Civil War for O’Rourke’s forthcoming book on Cold War–era U.S. covert operations. And he is helping with DiPasquale’s book on Islamic jurisprudence, writing research reports on Islamic, Greek, and Jewish political philosophy. Working on both projects, he says, has strengthened his interest in a career in diplomacy or public service.

Research journals

Boston College is also home to a range of student-run research journals. Special-interest undergraduate periodicals include the Middle Eastern and Islamic studies journal Al-Noor (est. 2008), the sociology department’s SocialEyes (est. 2009), Dianoia (est. 2011) for essays on philosophy, and the Clough Journal of Constitutional Democracy (est. 2010). Elements, founded by students in 2004 and funded by the Office of the Provost and the Institute for Liberal Arts, is the official journal for original student research in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Topics covered in the spring 2015 issue include female terrorism in Chechnya and Iraq, solar cells, and antebellum African-American art.

Advanced study grants

Undergrads interested in independent research can apply for an Advanced Study Grant. Faculty also nominate students with initiative and creativity, and each year the University Fellowships Committee allots some 70 grants for projects at the University, throughout the country, and abroad. Recent grantees include economics major Yushu Han ’17, who explored initial public offerings of stock in Beijing, theology major John Gabelus ’17, who examined the effects of slavery on modern medicine, and nursing student Kelly DiStefano ’15, who studied maternal health at a clinic in Pokhara, Nepal. The project, says DiStefano, “fueled my interest in maternal public health” and gave her the skills to “provide maternity care across borders and cultures” after graduation.

—Zak Jason