No increase in number of UTRAs offered this summer

By
Friday, February 13, 2009

Correction appended.

The number of Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards offered for this summer will remain steady at about 200, despite previous plans to expand the number each year, said Christina Furtado, assistant dean for upper class studies.

Though the Task Force on Undergraduate Education recommended expanding the UTRA program in its final report released in September, the University’s financial troubles have precluded the small increase planned for this year, said Furtado, who oversees the program for the Office of the Dean of the College.

Furtado did not know how large this year’s increase would have been. “We got hit before we got to that point,” she said, adding that the size of the program in any given year also depends on the quality of the applications received.

In its report, the task force recommended that the University “increase funding for independent learning experiences,” like research opportunities and internships.

There is currently no plan for future increases, Furtado said. But “if you want to be optimistic,” she added, “then yes – we hope to be able to turn things around next year.”

“We’re hoping to do the best we can for our students,” Furtado said, adding that administrators are “quite committed” to the task force’s recommendations.

In an e-mail to The Herald, Marjorie Thompson, associate dean of biological sciences, wrote that she has seen demand for UTRAs increasing. As the number of scholarships remains steady, students will have to be more creative in finding funding for summer research, she wrote.

“The onus will be on faculty” to use grants and other external funding to pay students, Thompson wrote, adding that students could also apply to outside programs or simply volunteer.

“No doubt the program, which is marvelous, is doing its best under very daunting times, so we just have to be realistic about this (and) get through the crisis,” she wrote.

Professor of Computer Science Andries van Dam, who often uses UTRA students and describes himself as a “firm and long-term believer” in the value of undergraduate research, said he was “disappointed” by the news.

“There are bound to be repercussions,” he said. “I’m hoping that in the (Campaign for Academic Enrichment) there will still be money earmarked for the UTRA program,” he said.

Sima Patel ’10, who is applying for an UTRA to research the underlying causes of sepsis – a potentially deadly medical condition caused by a full-body inflammatory response – said her decision to apply was not affected by the economic downturn. “I needed to join a lab at Brown if I wanted to be serious about writing a thesis,” she said.

As for the decision to curtail expansion of the UTRA program, Patel was pragmatic. “I feel like I’m in a bubble sometimes,” she said. “I think (the decision) shows that the University is hard-struck as well.”

The UTRA program has grown over the last several years to its current size, Furtado said.

She said it was too early to say whether more students will apply for UTRAs this year, given that summer opportunities elsewhere could be more scarce. “Like most deadlines at Brown, you really don’t see much activity” until right before the deadline, she said. The deadline for students to apply for UTRAs is tomorrow.

Furtado also said administrators are “hoping to stay on track” with initiatives to build community among students with UTRAs, like Research Thursdays, which bring in “leading authorities” to talk to students, and the Virtual Symposium, which allows students to share their projects online. Those projects are “not terribly resource-intensive,” she said.

An article about undergraduate research awards (“No increase in number of UTRAs offered this summer,” Feb. 5) referred to Marjorie Thompson as an assistant dean of biological sciences. Thompson is an associate dean of biological sciences.