Undergraduate research has been a pivotal part of my experience at Stony Brook University, and I believe it can be an extremely valuable asset for all undergraduates.
According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, undergraduate research is one of 11 high impact practices for a strong education. However, research opportunities — especially at a large, public STEM university such as Stony Brook — are oftentimes difficult to come by for undergraduates, largely due to a lack of publicity of existing programs and socioeconomic barriers.
In my time doing research at the University, I witnessed firsthand the difficulty many undergraduates face when attempting to break into research. My mentor has made it a priority to consider students with no extracurricular lab experience, as long as they have taken the appropriate lab classes. When talking to these students with little experience, they almost always express gratitude for this opportunity, and explain that they have not been able to participate in research because they believe or have found that most other labs will not accept them for their lack of experience.
The problem runs deeper than just having conflicts due to some students’ need to work for pay. Generally speaking, students from more challenged socioeconomic backgrounds have less experience in research, more time conflicts and less experience meeting and talking to professors. Students from impoverished backgrounds are also far less likely to complete their undergraduate degrees for this same reason: a lack of opportunity.
Overall, these compounding factors make it difficult for students to enter into the undergraduate research community. However, when looking into the topic through Stony Brook’s websites, it was evident that the University has many opportunities for undergraduates to get involved and to learn about research.
Here at Stony Brook, there are lifelines for undergraduates interested in research. The biology department, for example, sends a weekly email with potential internship and research opportunities for undergraduates. The School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the College of Engineering and Applied Sciences often do the same.
The University has also established the Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities (URECA) program, which supports undergraduates monetarily in their research and provides a community for undergrads to communicate and share their research. The URECA website provides detailed information about how to look for research positions, frequently asked questions about research, details on funding and opportunities to share and communicate research by giving poster presentations on projects. There are also a number of programs that Stony Brook funds and sponsors to encourage research for undergraduates outside of URECA. A non-exhaustive list of programs supporting undergraduate research can be found here.
When speaking with Christine Fena, a research librarian at the University, it was evident that the library also provides support to undergraduates in research. Similar guides can be found on the library website, some of which are department-specific.
“There is a librarian for each department who works closely with undergraduates, grad students and professors,” Fena said. “Getting in contact with these librarians is a helpful way to both learn basic skills in writing up research papers and to get in contact with someone engaged with researchers in a specific department.”
As URECA’s grants and events demonstrate, there is not a lot of funding for this program. Though this is common among state universities due to rising management costs and budget cuts — even at the level of graduate funding and seed grants for professors — the lack of funding in URECA inhibits independent research for undergraduate students that require funding to afford travel and material expenses.
There are still clear issues in undergraduate research at Stony Brook. A lack of acceptance of students with little prior experience in research and a lack of funding for undergraduate research have made it difficult to break into the field, especially for low-income students. Additionally, the first time I had heard of many of these programs and research guides was when talking to their major proponents — librarians, professors and program directors. The University must do a better job of publicizing these opportunities and making them known to the student body.
A combined effort of students actively looking for research positions using the lifelines Stony Brook provides and faculty ensuring that all applicants to research positions are considered equally may help fix this issue. However, there are also systemic challenges that must be addressed by the University and society at large if these issues — such as a lack of funding and low participation of underprivileged students — surrounding undergraduate research are to be addressed properly.