You don’t have to be in graduate school to conduct real research. Mason undergraduates are working alongside the university’s top researchers and scholars, assisting in cutting-edge experiments or designing their own.
When senior Sam Gelman came to Mason four years ago, he planned on being a biology major—then he became involved in a research project. He is now a computer science major, working on the motion capture of human movement with some of the university’s top researchers.
“I thought I wanted to be a doctor and only did the research because it was related to health,” says Gelman. “Computer science has been a hobby since high school.”
Gelman’s research involves using a Microsoft Kinect device to track a person’s movement, an application that could eventually be used in rehabilitation science. Now a research fellow in Mason’s Office of Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), Gelman has already presented his work at a national conference and plans to continue this work in graduate school. But his experience is not unique or even particularly unusual.
If OSCAR director Bethany Usher has her way, just about every undergraduate at Mason will have the opportunity to take part in such academic career-changing experiences.
“Research and scholarly pursuits are not just for the elite student,” says Usher, who started OSCAR almost three years ago. “Sometimes it is the students who are not making straight A’s who make amazing researchers. They are able to think outside the box and see approaches to problems in new ways.”
Each semester, Usher and her staff help match students with faculty mentors in a wide range of disciplines, working on projects from measuring brain atrophy in multiple sclerosis patients to choreographing original dance pieces. The students receive stipends to get their projects off the ground and can participate in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) for a number of semesters. Experienced students such as Gelman can move into the OSCAR Fellows program, where they can continue their research while sharing their experiences with new students.
The program is competitive; almost 90 students competed for about 60 spots for the spring 2014 semester. But URSP isn’t the only way OSCAR supports undergraduate research.
This year, OSCAR and the Office of Student Financial Aid have collaborated to pilot 30 research assistantships funded with federal work-study money. It is a win-win for the students who need financial aid and the faculty who need assistance with their scholarly work. Usher says that some of the academic departments have also started using their work-study positions to support research, giving the students a far more meaningful experience than serving as an office assistant.
“There is such value to it,” Usher says of the work-study pilot. “The students are excited about the work they are doing, and they get to figure out what they like and don’t like in terms of possible career fields.”
“We are also bringing hands-on research into classes,” says Usher. So far, 28 courses carry the Research and Scholarship-intensive designation RS, and all schools and colleges at Mason have at least one such course.
Here are some URSP students who are making the most of their research experiences: