Undergraduate research booms at the Faculty of Science

vince chisholm

Undergraduate Research Officer Victor Chisholm was the first person ever hired by a Canadian university specifically to promote undergraduate research.

When Victor Chisholm was an undergraduate student at McGill in the 1990s, his uncle suggested he get a summer research position with a professor. “I thought they would only hire graduate students,” Chisholm recalls. “I didn’t even bother to apply. Instead, I spent the break from school working at a retail job.”

 Things change. Years later, Chisholm is McGill’s Undergraduate Research Officer – the first person in Canada whose job is specifically to promote undergraduate research.  He’s been successful: Since he started the job in 2005, he has watched the proportion of science students who take research courses increase from 36 percent to over 50 percent – with no sign of slowing down.

“Each year I get more questions from prospective undergraduates about the potential for research at McGill,” he says. “This may be partially because high school students are already moving away from transmission of received knowledge to participatory forms. Then too, we live in a time when students know they need to get ahead, and engaging in research will give them an advantage.”

Undergraduate research can lead to “Eureka” moments – and much more

“Doing research really does have advantages. When a student participates in discovering something that no one has ever seen or known before, that is a ‘Eureka’ moment – but students can benefit in many other ways too. When they work on a summer-long research project, they learn how to find information, how to organize their time and how to manage a project. They learn to identify the important questions and problems. These skills are useful both within and outside academe.”

chisholm quoteEvery fall, Chisholm puts together the Faculty of Science Undergraduate Research Conference, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Students from across the Faculty of Science present their research projects to fellow students, alumni, and members of the public, and compete for prizes in half a dozen categories. “Students have to synthesize their ideas, express them clearly to others, and answer questions,” Chisholm explains. “These are skills that everyone needs, regardless of where life takes you.”

 Building connections over soup

To encourage undergraduates to take advantage of the research opportunities McGill offers them, Chisholm organizes twice-yearly Soup and Science weeks.  At the start of each semester, interested students gather in the Redpath Museum auditorium to listen to three-minute presentations from professors about their current work. Afterward, students and professors mingle – over soup, of course – and take advantage of the casual, friendly environment to build connections.

Soup and science

Soup and science events allow students interested in research to connect with like-minded professors.

Many undergraduates find it intimidating to approach professors about research opportunities, according to Chisholm. “In fact, there’s really nothing to worry about,” he says. “Professors are also researchers and many of them are very interested in having undergraduates in their labs.”

In the winter and spring, Chisholm runs competitions for two summer research awards: Science Undergraduate Research Awards (SURAs) and federally-funded NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Awards (NSERC USRA). These provide funding for science undergraduates to engage in 16 weeks of full-time research under the supervision of a McGill Science professor.

Donor support vital for summer research awards

First offered in Summer 2007, SURAs are made possible by funding from generous donors and from supervising professors. As budgets for other programs get tighter, financial support from donors has become more and more crucial, according to Chisholm. “These awards can literally transform students’ lives, so it’s very important to ensure they are funded,” he says.

“Students who are truly interested in research should make an extra effort to connect – preferably face-to-face. It’s an effort worth making, because once students land a spot in a research group, they never regret it.”

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