Undergraduate Research Grants Help Shape Students' Post-College Paths

Peter Civetta and Finote Gijsman
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Last year the Northwestern Office of Undergraduate Research awarded 1.3 million dollars in funding to 563 independent research and creative projects that support students’ post-college aspirations. Impressive numbers to be sure. But getting undergraduate research to the scale and scope of its current operations – processing nearly 900 applications annually – was no easy task.

In 2009, a partnership between the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Enabling Technologies team within Northwestern Information Technology (IT) Administrative Systems led to the development of the underlying system in place today that allows for the seamless finding, applying, reviewing, and notifying of awards; without which, the options available to students in any field of study would be dramatically decreased.

“Undergraduate research as a field has developed to really help transition students to out of college. It’s about teaching them to use their creativity, intellect, and the resources around them to help solve problems,” said Peter Civetta, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research. “The partnership [with IT] has enabled us to grow.  If we did not have this system, the Office couldn’t do the outreach that we can now. It’s a game changer in our ability to impact student lives.” 

Transformative Opportunity

Finote Gijsman, photo by Matthew Gilson
Finote Gijsman (WCAS’19) found her calling after being awarded her first Undergraduate Research Grant her freshman year to do research on a threatened plant [Pitcher's thistle] that is endemic to the Great Lakes Region. For the past three years, she has worked at the Chicago Botanic Garden studying the reproductive biology of the plant to help inform conservation efforts.

“I knew that I wanted to get into plant biology, but getting this chance has really made me realize that I want to go into research and move on to graduate school,” said Gijsman. “The grant has been a great way for me to not only work on these projects, network, and gain perspective, but it has also confirmed that this is really what I want to do.”

Overwhelming Faculty Support

Civetta says that faculty are overwhelmingly supportive of the students and their ambitions. The number of faculty involved continues to rise each year and has more than tripled since the Office of Undergraduate Research was established almost seven years ago.

Professor Neal Blair (McCormick School of Engineering) chairs the 35-member faculty review committee. He says that a big advantage of the review system is its portability.

“Sometimes we’re working on a tight timeline. We can easily review applications at home, in a coffee shop, or in our office, which makes it very convenient. The review itself is all done and posted remotely to the system,” said Blair.

He adds that that the vast majority of undergraduates in this country don’t have this type of opportunity.

“The Office of Undergraduate Research works hard to mentor students on how to get into the system and then does outreach, especially to areas that are not typically thought of in traditional research terms,” said Blair. “There has been a tremendous improvement in numbers and in the diversity of student backgrounds of those applying.” 

“These grants can be transformative,” said Civetta. “We see it all the time. That’s what is really exciting.”

Get Grant Dollars for your Research

Undergraduates in all fields of study are welcome to apply for a research grant through the Office of Undergraduate Research. To get started, visit the Office of Undergraduate Research web site.  

To hear more from Peter, Neal, and Finote about their experiences, listen to the podcast.

Photos and podcast by Dan Hoefler; article by Chris Ganjani; infographic by Nick Tiemersma