University optimistic about research despite cuts

March 3, 2010, 1:07 a.m.

Last year, in an effort to fund as many student researchers as possible, the University cut social events associated with the Summer Research College (SRC). These events won’t be returning this year and undergraduate research funds have been cut by 18 percent, according to Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education (VPUE) John Bravman ’79 M.S. ’81 Ph.D. ‘85.

Faculty, students and staff, however, still anticipate a robust summer of research. Stanford has the largest undergraduate research budget per capita in the country.

“Our goals haven’t changed,” said Brian Thomas, the associate dean of undergraduate research. “We want to enable as many students as possible to engage with Stanford faculty in pursuit of original research.”

“Students will live in campus housing,” Bravman added. “We just don’t have the dollars for programming and RA staff.”

There are not as many dollars available for VPUE grants, either.

“This extrapolates directly to fewer students doing research,” said Bob Simoni, chair of the biology department. According to Simoni, more than 70 percent of biology majors do research while at Stanford, though the budgets cuts could decrease participation.

Rick Pam, a lecturer in the physics department who helps organize its undergraduate research program, said that the department had to cut 20 percent of its VPUE-funded positions last summer. Although is possible that another 20 percent will be eliminated this coming summer, funding can come from other sources.

“Last year, we made a big effort to scrounge up enough money to support nearly the same number of students as before,” Pam said.

The physics department partnered with the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and the applied physics department to offer more positions, and looked to professors’ grants for funding.

The political science department, for its part, reorganized its budget to continue supporting student research.

“We’ve been lucky to be able to keep a lot of positions,” said Hana Meckler, the department’s undergraduate program administrator.

Most departments are intent upon securing funding for their students — a necessary measure, because roughly the same amount of students are currently looking for research positions as there were in past years. One such student, Josh Falk ’12, plans to apply for a VPUE-funded position in the linguistics department.

“In any field, I think being actively engaged in research is the best way to learn,” Falk said. He expects to work closely with a professor before finding a focus for his own project.

According to Thomas, this is a typical path for student researchers.

“Most students get their start working in a very structured way with faculty,” he said.

“The hope is that the experience will help them think about an independent project later on,” Simoni added.

Pam said that engaging in research early helps students define their career goals.

“Some people find research isn’t for them,” he said. “And then there are others who really love it.”

In her sophomore year, history major Evgenia Shnayder ’10 was interested in pursuing a Ph.D., but her advisors suggested that she try research before solidifying her long-term goals.

“After the summer of my sophomore year, I was completely hooked,” she said.

Shnayder has now worked in the Spatial History Lab for more than two years, and has loved every minute of it.

“The lab staff and researchers really trust the students — they really trust our opinions,” she said.

Richard Futrell ’10 shared a similar experience in the linguistics department, where he has worked since sophomore year.

“You’re discovering things that no one else knows,” said Futrell, who appreciates the groundbreaking aspect of research. Last year, Futrell was given the opportunity to travel to Germany with emerita Prof. Joan Bresnan to share some of their findings at a conference.

Meckler said that these kinds of presentations are an important aspect of the undergraduate research experience.

“It’s a lot of thinking on the spot, so they have to really know their stuff,” Meckler said.

Futrell started his research experience at the SRC and believes the program will be worthwhile even without dorm events.

“I think the dorm programming is basically superfluous,” he said. “The most important thing is the community.”

Bravman said that even with the cuts, he is not satisfied.

“I’m gonna work like hell to increase our budget for next year,” he said.

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