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U. expands UTRA program, increases stipend amount

Award recipients receive extra $500 stipend for 2014 summer research projects

As students struggle to fund summer plans, the University has expanded its Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards program, accommodating 50 additional students and increasing the award from $3,000 to $3,500 for summer 2014, said Oludurotimi Adetunji, assistant dean of the College and director of Science Center outreach.

The grant increased by $500 because of the emphasis in President Christina Paxson’s strategic plan on  providing more research opportunities for students, Adetunji said. The UTRA program’s funding has jumped by 40 percent since the 2012-2013 academic year, Adetunji wrote in a follow-up email to The Herald. Based on student feedback, the committee in charge of designating UTRAs decided to increase the grant amount, rather than further expanding the program’s number of spots, Adetunji said.

Some UTRA recipients said the boosted funding level could drive greater interest in research.

Though the extra $500 is not a “make-or-break” factor in Kei Nishimura-Gasparian’s ’16 summer plans, he said this extra money may encourage other students to pursue research over other opportunities.

“It levels the playing field in terms of who can financially accept the UTRA,” said Miriam Hinthorn ’16, noting that these funds can incentivize students to conduct research instead of taking menial jobs paying $10 an hour.

The past two years have seen a surge in the number of applications for UTRAs compared to the three years prior, Adetunji said, adding that this rise is probably due to increased awareness of the program.

The recent federal government sequester, which limits the number of grants to federally funded research institutions, also contributed to the increase in UTRA applicants, Adetunji said. “There were reduced opportunities for students, broadly speaking.”

As UTRA applications surge, the program has become more competitive, he said. But it continues to grapple with accepting a range of students from diverse concentrations.

The committee in charge of designating UTRAs is split into four sub-committees representing the humanities, social sciences, life sciences and physical sciences, Adetunji said. But proportionally more students apply for UTRAs in life sciences and physical sciences, he said, adding that though the percentage of students receiving the award remains consistent across each field, the disproportionate number of applications in the sciences results in a larger number of grants for science research projects.

Though the UTRA program has seen a slight increase in proposals for research in the humanities, administrators continually seek new ways of encouraging students outside the sciences to pursue research through workshops and events, Adetunji said.

Students said they have learned about the UTRA program through diverse outlets on campus.

Angelia Wang ’16, the Herald illustrations editor, said she heard about UTRAs even before coming to the University from an older Brown student who participated in the program.

Michael Scheer ’16 said a faculty member who invited him to do research told him about the UTRA program, while Hinthorn said she heard of the grant through Morning Mail and information sessions about the program.

While research remains popular on campus, students reported a wide range of uses for their grants. Elizabeth Jean-Marie ’15 received an UTRA for microbiology research working with common clinical bacteria this year. Jean-Marie said the UTRA made it possible for her to stay in Providence for an extended period of 10 weeks.

Hinthorn received the UTRA for the second time in a row this summer. Though she is a political science concentrator, Hinthorn will be working with the Department of Sociology to investigate the effects of prenatal screening on abortion rates.

Nishimura-Gasparian said he will be conducting research on disordered proteins, which are often linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

Though Scheer received an UTRA to officially work with the Department of Computer Science, he will use the grant to conduct neuroscience research, he said.

Many students expressed frustration that the application inquires about unnecessary information. Wang said she does not see the purpose of the relevant coursework question, as first-year applicants may have limited options for what to fill out.

Hinthorn said the application’s “daunting” length could discourage students from applying. She added that the questions on the application and the guidelines for answering them are too general, and the application should instead ask about how the UTRA furthers students’ long-term goals.

Despite complaints, Adetunji said the University remains committed to helping students who are looking for academic opportunities outside the classroom.

“The goal of the College is to support every undergraduate who seeks to engage in research,” Adetunji said.


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