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Brown works to expand, increase summer UTRA options

With traditional research plans in question, University seeks student insights on remote learning, will offer shorter-term course development opportunities

The University plans to offer new options for summer Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards in light of ongoing uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. It will also allow current applicants to modify their plans. 

The new opportunities will have a shorter duration than a typical 10-week summer UTRA and will focus on course development. The University hopes to post applications within the next two weeks, and graduating seniors will also be eligible to apply, said Senior Associate Dean for Curriculum Besenia Rodriguez.

UTRAs typically give undergraduates the opportunity to contribute to research and teaching projects on campus or internationally in the summer. Although student feedback is “always valuable” for course design, the University does not usually receive many UTRA applications related to teaching, Rodriguez said.

But this summer, students could offer important insights related to remote learning, especially as the University prepares for a fall semester that could be on-campus, online or some combination of the two.

“That student input is so critical in order to make … these learning experiences as effective as possible,” Rodriguez said.

Some faculty members have already reached out to indicate their interest in mentoring students in research or course development this summer, Rodriguez said. “What we're doing now is essentially reaching out to faculty more systematically to get more people to essentially volunteer to work with a student.”

Students and faculty who already applied for UTRAs should also hear back within two weeks. Applicants will have the opportunity to modify their summer projects or develop entirely new plans. For instance, if a lab research project is no longer feasible, a student could work to instead turn “a lab section of a STEM course into an online experience,” Rodriguez said.

“We're hoping that many of the projects can still be carried out in some form or another, and for those that can't be carried out, we hope that these new opportunities will sort of provide another option for students to pursue,” Rodriguez said. University librarians will be available to help with project transitions, she added.

Full-time UTRAs will come with a $4,000 stipend, a slight increase from past years. The new, teaching-focused UTRAs will be shorter term and will come with a $2,000 stipend, plus an additional $1,000 for students with higher demonstrated financial need, Rodriguez said.

Even before being alerted to the new UTRA options, some student and faculty applicants have already been thinking about adapting projects.

Morgan Brinker ’21 applied for an UTRA to work with Ronald Aubert, visiting professor of the practice of race and ethnicity at the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America and the School of Public Health.

“Since it isn't the typical wet lab or bench work, (my UTRA) could be done remotely, theoretically, but I think that would be unfair for UTRA to only fund remote UTRAs,” Brinker said.

Aubert noted that Brinker’s project is primarily data-driven, and so “is a project that can be done remotely.”

“We'll take advantage of the tools that we have, like Zoom or Google Meet, whatever is convenient,” Aubert said. “I'm a little old school in the sense that I like to sort of see the expression on people's faces to really understand that they got it. ... But these are unusual times, and we just have to adapt the best we can.”

Assistant Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine Jessica Plavicki, who has two UTRA applicants in her lab, said she is willing “to try to be creative” to support UTRA applicants.

“If there's anything that we can do to make it possible for them to have a summer research experience, we're willing to do that,” she said. Since many students are unable to pursue UTRAs, Plavicki will also consider ways to “take this negative situation and turn it into maybe what will end up being a positive tool to help reach a greater number of students in the future,” she said.

Student applicants for summer UTRAs expressed disappointment but understanding at the continued delays. After previous changes to the award notification date, Associate Dean of the College for Undergraduate Research and Inclusive Science Oludurotimi Adetunji told applicants in an April 13 email that the process would continue to be delayed.

“I understand where they're coming from, but it's still frustrating,” said Ratna Patel ’21, who applied for an UTRA to continue working in the Plavicki laboratory this summer. 

With many students facing canceled summer positions, “it's a matter of us not being able to move forward, versus people that know their internship is canceled can start looking for things at home or something,” Patel said.

Celeste Ng ’22, who applied to continue research in the Lapierre laboratory, where she has worked since spring 2019, said her work would be “pretty much impossible to do at home.”

“It's unfortunate, but I mean I think I'm not going to be the only one that's affected by it, so I think we're all going to be in the same boat,” Ng said.

Those awaiting word on their UTRA applications “should know that there are going to be more options really soon,” Rodriguez said. “If they've already applied, they might be thinking with their faculty member about … how they would envision revising their project if they have an opportunity to do that.”

Students can also spend time thinking about their goals for the summer, how they can “revise those goals in light of the current constraints” and “just thinking through how you make that work with your life circumstances and your needs and constraints at home,” Rodriguez said.


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