I leafed through the yellowed pages of poetry with care, tracing each handwritten word with my finger and trying my hardest not to rip the 60-year old manuscript. In the silence of the Huntington Library archives — scholars and historians surrounding me — a single question kept echoing in the back of my head: "How did I get here?"
For new UC Davis students (or even continuing ones) that question might be a little different. Whether you’re refining your academic focus, or still exploring UCD’s many classes, you might be wondering "Where do I go from here?"
The answer to both of those questions is undergraduate research. As director of the Undergraduate Research Center E.M. Nuñez explains, collegiate research is more than writing essays or academic drudgery. Instead, it is vital to “gaining project management skills, effective communication, the ability to work in teams effectively and so much more.”
Get started in undergraduate research
Undergraduate research might seem overwhelming, but what’s most important is finding a subject you’re interested in.
That lightbulb lit up during one of my classes. I was writing an essay on the poet Wallace Stevens when I found myself immersed in primary and secondary sources from Shields Library. There was this gap between the assigned readings and thinking about Stevens’ poetry from an environmental standpoint. That idea persisted after I turned in the essay and finished my class.
That’s not to say classes are the only way to get inspired. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology major Jessica Lee became interested in synthetic biology after working with the BioInnovation Group, a student-led research organization at UC Davis.
The experience got her interested in economic and environmentally-friendly vegan alternatives to cheese. She began collaborating with other club members to further her research at UC Davis labs.
Aside from classes and clubs, UC Davis also has dedicated resources just for you: the Undergraduate Research Center. The URC visits classrooms to share how they can support your potential research goals. This can be a great first step for first-year students and transfer students who, as Nuñez says, might not know where to start looking.
Connect with undergraduate mentors
Do you have a specific idea for your project or general interest? The answer to both is to find the support you need to reach your goals. Nuñez advises students to “get connected to the URC, a faculty member you are interested in working with or a sponsored research program such as CAMP or MMP-HArCSS.”
CAMP refers to the California Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation and the latter is the Mentor-Mentee Program in Humanities, Arts, Cultural Studies and Social Sciences. The URC offers both programs to match undergraduates with mentors who can support their research interests. These programs are invaluable. The guidance develops your research ideas and hones communication and project management skills. The experience leads students to external research programs like the McNair scholarship program.
“The URC has very close working relationships with all the sponsored research programs such as McNair,” Nuñez says. “It is common for program coordinators, managers and directors to work together to support a student looking for an experience with a sponsored research program.”
Many professors are also happy to help interested students with independent research. If a specific class ignited your interest in research, it's worth approaching the professor to discuss resources or opportunities that might suit your project. It's worth it to ask a professor if they're interested in working together in an independent study class.
Depending on your field of study, your department may have dedicated resources to help you conduct research under experienced guidance. Honors Thesis programs are available for juniors and seniors to apply to and provide you with a cohort of peers with similar interests. Additionally, the professors that lead the programs are great resources. They can connect you with specific advisors to guide your research and answer questions vital to young scholars.
Undergraduate research grants and conferences
OK, you’ve developed your idea in conjunction with peers, professors, or programs. The next step is to test your hard work with the world around you.
The Provost’s Undergraduate Fellowship, a research grant offered to undergraduates by the URC, allowed me to do research off-campus. Drawing on my research interest, I proposed a project under the supervision of a professor with whom I’d connected. The experience helped me develop my ideas from an essay to a wide-ranging survey of the field. The grant supported my research of the poet Wallace Stevens, and I was able to visit the Huntington Library archive in Los Angeles for a week, reading documents written by the man himself.
It was an incredible experience, and the culmination of all the outreach, support, and work I’d engaged within my time on campus. But I wasn’t quite done.
The next step of your undergraduate research involves presentation. Showing the world the work you’ve done, what it means, and how it makes a difference in your field. UC Davis offers a host of opportunities for you to do this. The URC hosts an annual Undergraduate Research Conference. Student researchers who attend can apply to present their studies to other students and professors. Together with a dedicated community of researchers, I presented my studied thoughts on the poetry of Wallace Stevens during the URC’s first-ever online Undergraduate Research Conference, in light of coronavirus guidelines.
And even that isn’t the end of your research. It might never truly end. With a long list of awards such as the Lang Prize, Departmental Honors Thesis prizes and Research prizes, the Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, and opportunities for publication such as the annual editions of Prized Writing, UC Davis’ resources are there to continue the journey of your research from your undergraduate years, wherever the future might take you.