At this time last year, I was both nervous as hell and excited for the culmination of many months of work. One of the Students’ Union’s major events of the year – and a goal that I included in my platform when running for Vice-President Academic – was set to take place in Dinwoodie Lounge at 6 pm. The Thursday night dinner would mark the opening of the first-ever U of A Undergraduate Research Symposium, one of Canada’s largest university-wide research showcases, highlighting the incredible work done by some very talented undergraduate students.
In the year prior to my term as VPA, two former SU execs, Aden and James, invited me down to Calgary on a trip to the U of C‘s annual undergraduate research symposium, which is among the largest of its kind in North America. Simply put, I was stunned by the number of students that presented their work, with projects focusing on everything from political sciences to engineering and nursing. Upon returning to Edmonton, I knew that I wanted to run for VPA, with the creation of the U of A’s version of an undergraduate research symposium as one of my foremost platform points. The goal was achieved, and in mid-November 2011, the plans were in place for the U of A’s debut version.
From May to November 2011, I was fortunate to work with an incredible team from the U of A’s Undergraduate Research Initiative, which provided the funds needed to organize such a large event. Two key individuals, Connie Varnhagen and Alexis Lockwood, provided the support needed throughout the planning of the URS, which was often much bumpier than I anticipated. However, with the help of a dedicated team of organizers, we recruited over 120 student delegates for the event, in addition to a diverse set of professors that served as judges. Though we didn’t come up with a particular slogan for the event, one of the major goals was to pair students with adjudicators (professors) in completely different areas of research, so that students would have to communicate their projects in basic language. From what I’ve heard, that plan was successful, with students bringing out their inner-Malcolm Gladwell and Jonah Lehrer (minus the plagiarism) in order to show non-specialists what something like rRNA Methyltransferase actually means.
As undergraduates, many of us simply assume that professors, Masters students and PhD students do all of the fun research; undergraduates merely attend classes and go home. Thankfully, that couldn’t be further from the truth. While competing in a research competition back in grade twelve, the Sanofi Bio-Aventis Challenge, I saw first-hand that even high school students undertake some phenomenal research projects. Fast-forward three years, and I was once again blown away by the breadth of research topics studied by students. In 2011, I remember a pair of students, Chaka Zinyemba and Marc Parsons, who together studied the air quality at major Edmonton festivals. We had another talented student looking at the depiction of a prominent Mexican female leader through political cartoons, and countless innovative projects in the natural and applied sciences. This year, the VPA Dustin Chelen has written about some of the projects on tap. For instance, one of the projects looks at the way in which people think about their previous sex partners. Another student is studying the water quality of the Athabasca River up near the oil sands. These are only two out of the hundreds of projects presented in the first two years of the Undergraduate Research Symposium.
The U of A is an excellent school, and it is certainly among the best in Canada. However, I would like to propose a challenge. In order to make the U of A truly unique, we need to do something that clearly sets us apart from every other Canadian school. We can do this by creating a school-wide goal that every U of A undergraduate student will undertake a research project during their four-year program, with every project presented at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in mid-November. Students could work on their own, or in small teams, under the tutelage of a professor and with the support of the Undergraduate Research Initiative, departments and faculties. Though students would all eventually present their research at the November symposium – and in some cases, publish a paper prior to graduation – more profound and lasting benefits would be gained from the research. These benefits would be the development of curiosity, and the ability to ask good questions.
From 10 am to 3 pm today (November 15), the URS is taking place on the south side of CCIS. Make sure you come out and wander around the many projects!