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Papendorp ’17: Unpaid research excludes low-income students

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, September 16, 2016

According to the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, though the percentage of Brown students from historically underrepresented groups has increased over 4 percent since 2004, the percent of HUG science, technology, engineering and math concentrators has been about constant. Though low-income undergraduates may be encouraged to study STEM fields, the financial pressures of research might be a reason why idealistic statements about increasing underrepresented groups in STEM haven’t materialized. To be sure, low-income students in all disciplines face difficulties that their peers do not. But given the particular problem with underrepresentation of minorities and women in STEM fields, it’s especially important for Brown to recognize the financial considerations that may affect these groups.

For students studying STEM fields, being involved in research is a crucial part of the learning experience and can help students decide what career path to follow. During the school year, most undergraduate research assistants are expected to devote 10 to 20 hours per week to the lab, usually unpaid. Clearly, these expectations may not be feasible for low-income students who already must balance paid jobs with coursework. And even if some students are able to arrange to be paid hourly for their work in a lab, the prevailing assumption that undergraduates will work for free may prevent cash-strapped students from even trying to obtain an undergraduate research position.

Commendably, Brown makes it very easy to receive course credit for research, with many departments offering independent studies involving research that require little more than a short project proposal, a signature from a faculty sponsor and approval by the department. But the opportunity to get course credit for research may not be very meaningful for students whose primary concern is monetary. Even worse, low-income students may in fact feel extra pressure to take traditionally structured courses at Brown with clear practical applications. And though research is a learning experience, it also involves hours of labor that deserve pay.

Funds to pay students for research would not even necessarily have to come from Brown coffers; Brown could streamline the process for students who receive federal work study to apply these funds to their research. Additionally, many of the more well-established labs could easily pay students directly from grant money.

Brown does offer some research grants, especially for summer work, such as the Karen T. Romer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards. But even these awards can be insufficient for Brown’s neediest students. 

Of course, students can always take on an additional job to cover the difference, but according to an email I received from the UTRA committee, research “must be the student’s primary work during the summer.” Essentially, Brown implicitly assumes that students who can’t use savings or family support to cover the summer earnings expectation will balance another 10 to 15 hours of paid employment per week on top of 35 hours of research. Of course, students who take internships in business and finance also end up working gruelingly long weeks over the summer. But the fact that, unlike research, these jobs pay more than $0.40 above the minimum wage surely draws students with financial concerns away from STEM.

And while BrownConnect LINK awards for conventional summer internships are also $3,500, they can be combined with Summer Earnings Waivers, which consist of a credit for the summer earnings expectation posted directly to the student’s financial aid account. To better support low-income students in STEM, Brown could consider offering something like the SEW program in conjunction with UTRAs.

Brown should be proud to have such a strong tradition of undergraduate research. The relationships I have built over hundreds of hours at the lab have kept me on track in my neuroscience classes even at times when I felt overwhelmed and out of place. Still, the assumption that undergraduate research assistants in STEM will work for free makes me concerned that we are shutting low-income students out of the valuable experience of undergraduate research. Brown must work to make sure that research opportunities are as accessible as possible to the low-income students who need them most.

Carin Papendorp ’17 can be reached at carin_papendorp@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that students receiving UTRA awards are also responsible for a $2,600 summer earnings requirement. In fact, the summer earnings requirement is waived for students with UTRAs. The Herald regrets the error. 

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