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OU students still have research opportunities despite closure of Office of Undergraduate Research

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Undergraduate Researcher

Microbiology Sophomore Esmeralda Alcala pipettes a solution into a centrifuge Jan 16.

When interim vice president of research Randall Hewes announced in November that the Office of Undergraduate Research was closing, many students were concerned about the future.

While the structure of undergraduate research support at OU faces an uncertain future, certain programs continue to provide students with research opportunities.

Esmeralda Alcala, a microbiology sophomore who previously worked as an undergraduate research ambassador with the Office of Undergraduate Research, said she thinks the change has caused uncertainty and may make it more difficult for students to get involved with research.

The Office of Undergraduate Research was one of three research offices closed in November. In response to community concerns, Hewes said in a statement at the time that recent personnel expansions in research had added costs without producing the desired research outcomes, and that his office remained committed to improving the student research experience.

“I think there will be fewer people knowing that there are still opportunities to get funded for research, and there are less opportunities,” Alcala said. “I feel like some people will be more hesitant to do research, just because they don’t know if they’re going to get funded or they don’t know where to start.”

Rich Hamerla, associate dean of the Honors College, said he felt at the time that concerns may not have taken into consideration the way research had previously existed.

“It was interesting when the undergraduate research office was closed down because the attitude across campus seemed to be that undergraduate research was going away,” Hamerla said. “A lot of the programs that you hear talked about were never in O.U.R. anyway; it was always us.”

He said the Honors College offers numerous programs to the entire student body that aren’t going anywhere, despite community concerns.

“We’ve been running undergraduate research programs that have been sort of under the radar at OU generally because students and even faculty think they are for only honors students,” Hamerla said. “We have those programs, but most of our programs are actually open to all undergrads.”

These Honors College research programs available to all undergraduates include the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, Four-Year Research Experience and Undergraduate Research Day. Numerous other programs are also available from the Honors College.

Hamerla said these programs have offered undergraduate students the opportunity to obtain funding for research and also to demonstrate their work to the OU community.

According to a document provided to The Daily by Hamerla, Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program provided over $46,000 in funding to 67 undergraduate students in 2018 alone to help them conduct their research. This program is not exclusive to Honors College students.

Elizabeth Ambos, executive director of the Council on Undergraduate Research, works at a national level to provide events for undergraduate researchers, understand the impact of undergraduate research and help universities and faculty incorporate research into the curriculum. She said these experiences are vital to attracting, retaining and graduating students.

Ambos said in her experience, many universities similar to OU in research have different models for undergraduate research support.

“(The Office of Undergraduate Research at OU) was housed in research,” Ambos said. “That is not an uncommon model, but particularly at what would be called the research high-intensive institutions such as OU, we would see offices of undergraduate research housed in undergraduate education.”

Ambos said that a distributed model for undergraduate research support and programs, or a model in which research programs are not housed in a centralized undergraduate research office, can be successful. But Ambos said in her experience, a centralized office has distinct benefits.

“I think the main argument for the centralized office is that you can more easily measure the impact of research and see patterns, and you can also leverage resources more cost-effectively to provide opportunities for students and ways for faculty to work together to build more course-based experiences in research,” Ambos said.

While some universities that have an office of undergraduate research use it as the sort of centralized office Ambos mentioned, OU’s programs running through the Honors College would seem to indicate that OU’s Office of Undergraduate Research did not provide centralization for undergraduate research.

Hamerla said he sometimes felt the Office of Undergraduate Research was a competitor rather than a uniting force for undergraduate research programs at the university. He said when the office was established roughly 10 years ago and after many of the Honors College-based programs already existed, there was never much of a sense of communication.

“We never knew what they were doing, they never communicated, or very rarely — but again, it was almost as if we were in competition with one another,” Hamerla said. “We existed before that office popped up. And it’s not their fault, there was never sort of any higher administration decision to partner the two.”

While Hamerla said OU President James Gallogly’s goal of doubling research could have many interpretations, he said he hopes and believes undergraduate researchers can benefit.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as the premier undergraduate research unit on campus,” Hamerla said. “We have opportunities here that we can expand, and now is a good time.”

When considering a goal like doubling research, Ambos agreed there are many ways to measure research success.

“From my experience, which has included being a research officer — albeit at a smaller institution — the primary way that most research offices measure success is number of research proposals and number of grant dollars brought in,” Ambos said.

While the administration has not publicly stated the metrics it will use to determine research success, Hamerla said he would like to see any interpretation lead to an increased chance for students get involved in one of the most transformative experiences they can have as undergraduates.

“From my office, where I sit, I deal with very bright undergraduate students,” Hamerla said. “What I see as the most important impact of research is the student experience and that they get involved with legitimate, sophisticated research as early as possible in their undergraduate career.”

Alcala, who is conducting research on mutants of a plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana, said that despite her disappointment with the closure of the Office of Undergraduate Research, she had a word of advice to anyone who might want to conduct research.

“Never be afraid to ask a question,” Alcala said. “That’s how I got into research.”

Correction: This story was changed at 12:20 p.m. on Jan. 17 to reflect the fact that the acronym FYRE stands for Four-Year Research Experience, rather than First Year Research Experience.

Scott Kirker is a letters and Spanish senior and assistant news managing editor for The Daily. Previously he worked as summer editor-in-chief and as a news reporter covering research and administrative searches.

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