Searching and researching: an undergraduate’s guide to getting involved on campus

Andrew DeLaitsch presents his research project to attendees at the Undergraduate Symposium hosted in Varsity Hall at Union South at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on April 13, 2017. The annual event showcases student-led research, creative endeavors and service-learning projects. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison) Image By: Bryce Richter and Bryce Richter

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has long been established as a Midwestern mecca of research and creative work, with a myriad of research centers and offices in a multitude of fields. Dozens of professors and graduate students decide to come to UW-Madison to take part in this great endeavor, but there’s another facet to the research generated by the university.

Undergraduate students work in labs, in research centers and conduct their own research in capstones, colloquiums, practicums and senior design courses. With so many opportunities to get involved in research, it can be incredibly difficult for undergraduates to know how or where to begin.

How does one find a professor who actually wants undergraduates in their lab working on their projects? What options are there for a student who doesn’t know what exactly they’d like to study?

The Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, located on the third floor of the Red Gym, is one way for students to get involved in research. The program, headed by Amy Sloan, places scholars with mentors who help facilitate their growth in their field.

“Research on campus can be very overwhelming, and URS helps students get past the ‘haziness’ of the networking process,” said Carina Carreño, the program and outreach coordinator and a former scholar and fellow herself.

Professors, faculty, senior scientists, lecturers and upper-level graduate students or post-doctorates can apply to be mentors, meaning they accept students in the program and work with them to professionally develop skills in their field. Students can apply in late spring or summer, and if accepted, they can contact mentors in the field they’re interested in and set up an interview. Afterward, the mentor can either accept the scholar or suggest they contact a different mentor.

The program accepts between 150 to 170 students as scholars every year and has 18 to 20 fellows, which are upperclassmen who reapply to the program to teach interdisciplinary seminars to the scholars. The program has between 100 to 120 submissions from UW-Madison faculty to be mentors, providing undergraduates with vast and varied opportunities to start research.

Carreño recommended students who would like to get research experience or begin working in a lab apply to the Undergraduate Scholars Program or another program on campus, such as a research scholarship or fellowship.

“Our program gets you into a position, but also a perspective of how research is conducted,” said Carreño. “[Students] learn about what research actually means, and cultivate a sense of joy from what [they are] doing.”

Quite a few majors require research in their classes — be it a colloquium, a practicum, senior design or a capstone. In fact, UW-Madison is the only school in the country to accept first-year students into research programs, something that Carreño cited as critical to supporting students and fostering their research interests.

Many of the students continue in the program as fellows or continue their research after their first year has ended, meaning they’ll graduate with real-world experiences and skills which can then transfer to their career. Something the program stresses is building professional skills, such as grant writing, interviewing, presenting research and networking at conferences and symposiums. Here, students can not only articulate their ideas and defend their arguments, but converse with colleagues and peers about their interests.

Through this program and others like it, UW-Madison encourages the development of ideas and discussions on campus, as well as the growth of its students into thoughtful and practical researchers. With so much to offer already, undergraduate research is yet another example of a meaningful opportunity for students here at UW-Madison.

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