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Beyond the university, there are other avenues for undergraduate research. Photo: Hailey Otten/Fulcrum
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For students like us, the joy of our university years is the realization that there is so much to discover

Dr. Pascale Duhamel, a professor in musicology at the University of Ottawa, recalls the words of a professor in her undergraduate days: 

“You are a girl who wants to know everything.”

Many undergraduate students possess the same voracious need to learn that radiated from the young Dr. Duhamel. We devour books, sit on the edge of our seats during interesting lectures. We go into Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit holes. For students like us, the joy of our university years is the realization that there is so much to discover.

For most undergraduate students, this curiosity is primarily spent on taking in the course material of our various programs, bending over easels and Victorian novels and lab counters. And outside study hours, we chase our little threads of interest, taking up hobbies, spending too much time on the internet. 

For people like us, research is second nature. The hours spent scouring Omni for peer-reviewed sources that align with a thesis are a pleasure as much as they are a burden. After our essays are handed in, dripping in sweat, the knowledge that was gathered will linger in our minds.

Graduate school looms as a future possibility, or even uncertainty, one path of many in a journey of exploration. Some of us have planned the next years of our lives down to the last month. A spot in our dream research programs is within reach — if only we qualify, if only we meet the mark. As we study — as we work — there is a small, nagging feeling that we aren’t doing enough.

For the rest of us, graduate school is one of many shapes in the mists of our future after graduation. We wonder if we have what it takes if we really want it. Thinking about the logistics is exhausting — grant applications, thesis proposals, journal submissions. We have essays to hand in, time to waste. We’ll get there when we get there. 

Planners and procrastinators alike, many of us undergraduates believe that participating in academic research is a far-off goal. But the future is more accessible than we think. Research opportunities for undergraduate students exist, the kind that involve the supervised gathering of data, submission for publications, and the possibility of research awards. And these opportunities are more accessible than we think.

This is how we came to chat with Dr. Duhamel. Under her supervision, two undergraduate students in her musicology seminar have worked on research papers that they submitted for presentation at the 2021 Medieval and Renaissance International Music Conference.

The professor’s seminars are extensions of her own research projects, with the students acting as a research team. The weekly topics are all interrelated to a project she is currently working on, and the students gather each week to exchange the ideas they have developed from the assigned readings and their own research. 

During her fall 2020 seminar, these gatherings proved especially fruitful for the professor’s research. “The seminar was very, very crucial for me to develop my analytical approach. It was an outcome I almost didn’t foresee,” Duhamel said.

Looking over the work of the curious minds, she got the idea to have some of her students participate in the next year’s MedRen conference, whose calls for submission opened in January.

Because of the competitive nature of conferences, Dr. Duhamel knew that she could only submit work with superior analysis that discovered something new.

“I was sorry that I could only select two students,” she said. “I had five students. I would have liked to choose more. That’s something I’m less at ease with.”

One of the chosen students was Chantal Prouse, a double major in music and science. When she heard of the chance to compete for one of the spots for the conference submission, a competitive flame was ignited within her.

“I was excited by the idea of creating something new and digging for the information. And it was a combined graduate and undergraduate seminar, and so that really motivated me to write the heck out of that paper,” said Prouse.

After their submissions were accepted, the professor met regularly with the two students to help them prepare their presentations. The conference was a success.

“I got praised by a famous musicologist,” said Prouse. “Big flex!”

Both students’ papers will be incorporated as chapters in Dr. Duhamel’s upcoming publication, a collection of essays.

This was not Prouse’s first experience with undergraduate research. In her second year, she conducted a project with the university’s Piano Pedagogy Lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP).

We chatted with Arturo Seguro, director of the university’s Centre for Research Opportunities, and Julie Vaillancourt, the centre’s program coordinator for UROP. The application, usually completed in the fall semester, requires the students to be full time for the whole school year, and to have a supervising professor with whom they collaborate with on a small research project. 

Successful applicants receive $1,000, with an additional $500 awarded to their supervisors. Over the duration of the program, they complete seventy-five hours of research. Along with this, students receive training through workshops on writing research abstracts and posters.

“Seventy-five hours is an initiation,” said Vaillancourt. “It gives you a taste of whether you’re skilled or passionate about research.”

At the end of the program, seven to ten finalists are picked out of the 250 participants of the program and allowed to participate in the final symposium for a chance to win a prize.

Seguro emphasized that the Centre for Research Opportunities offered more programs beyond UROP, with both local and international opportunities. These include the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) program, which invites graduate and undergraduate students in scientific programs to apply for a grant of at least $7,500, and a chance to work in the research team of a faculty member for sixteen consecutive weeks. 

Seguro also stated that this program prioritizes Indigenous students in their selection process. An example of an international program at the centre is the Mitacs Global Research Link, which awards graduate and senior undergraduate students $6,000 to conduct 12-24 weeks of research in universities abroad.

Many undergraduate students have never heard of programs like these. One way to keep in the loop is to check the student messages on the uOzone homepage. Another is to sign up for the centre’s mailing list. 

Beyond the university, there are other avenues for undergraduate research. One example is the annual volunteer internship under the Antarctic Institute of Canada, non-profit organization dedicated to scholarly research and academic writing.

Haya Sonawala, an English student at the U of O, chatted with us about her experience participating in the summer 2021 program. There were up to 200 positions available, with the participants split into cohorts of 12 according to the interests they listed on their applications. 

Sonawala was put in a group researching social science-related topics. Over four weeks, her cohort wrote three short books, one of which has not been published yet: The Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists, Why Does Art Therapy Work, and Bilingualism in Cognitive Aging. Each person was assigned to work on one or two chapters at a time. 

“It was really fun. But it was also kind of rough,” said Sonawala. “The internship was, like, a month, so you had a week or two to write and edit the chapters. It was very work intensive.”

The ability to work hard is an essential part of working in research. But beyond this, there must be the child-like curiosity that propels us down the paths to knowledge.

“The best advice I would give is to read, read, read,” said Dr. Duhamel. “Whatever the subject, almost all topics can fuel reflection on other topics. These books, they talk to each other. You can establish links between ideas. Reading opens the imagination.”

“The library is like a world waiting for you to explore. That’s what I tell my students,” she said with a smile.

As the twelfth-century theologian, Hugh of St. Victor said, “Learn everything. Later you will see that nothing is superfluous.”