When people think of research, their first image is often of a biology or chemistry lab, with scientists working at benches and wearing white lab coats.
“That’s the stereotype, and there are research opportunities like that for Rutgers undergraduates,” says Matthew Evans, recently appointed director of the Aresty Research Center at Rutgers. “But there are so many others. Research topics span the humanities, social sciences, technology, life sciences and physical sciences.”
In fact, notes Evans, there is an even balance between projects in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and those in the humanities and social sciences.
These projects were on display at the recent eighth annual Aresty Undergraduate Research Symposium at the Rutgers Student Center.
Visitors learned about new ideas for solar cell materials, different approaches to delivering chemotherapy in cancer patients, how people learning a second language pick up aspects of that language’s structure, and the influences fine arts had on medical photography more than a century ago.
Begun in 2004, the Aresty Research Center gives undergraduates the opportunity to learn research principles and techniques as they conduct research under the mentorship of a faculty member. It is named for the late Jerome Aresty, a Rutgers alumnus, and his wife, Lorraine, who provided funding to establish and sustain the program.
Evans says 2012 is the biggest year in the center’s history, with more than 160 new research opportunities across 60 departments, institutes and centers. A record number of students have applied for the center’s summer science program and its research assistant program for the coming academic year.
Perhaps more important than the wide range of topics are the benefits of research to the overall undergraduate experience.
“Learning and teaching happen everywhere, throughout the university, all day long, in different settings,” says Chuck Keeton, faculty director of the Aresty Center and associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences. “The Aresty Center embodies that notion.”
Participating in research can help students figure out what they want to pursue in school and after graduation.
“We get students and faculty talking to each other, talking about what’s exicting,” says Keeton. “As a professor, I know how quickly I focus on the details of my research. Working with undergraduates forces me to answer questions about why my work matters. What is interesting about it? What is the ‘wow’ factor? Doing that is rewarding to me and my students.”
Evans believes the Aresty Center helps make a large university more personal. Students can apply as early as their first year to work as research assistants during the following year. Participating professors mentor them closely in the principles and techniques of research. Often students continue working with the same professor until graduation, although there are opportunities to work with others if students’ interests change.
“Having those connections, feeling part of an institution that sometimes feels pretty large, makes it feel a bit smaller,” Evans says.
The benefits continue after graduation.
“Students learn that in the real world, as in research, the answer is not known in advance,” says Keeton. Research participants gain critical thinking and problem solving skills that are useful in graduate study, the job market, or simply being informed citizens.