The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Three Renowned Leaders From Three State Institutions Discuss the Benefit of Undergraduate Research During MassURC Leadership Panel

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During the early afternoon hours of Friday, April 23, the Massachusetts Undergraduate Research Conference (MassURC) kicked off its Leadership Panel, a three-way discussion between audience members, two student moderators, and three educational leaders. The three leaders of public institutions included President Laura Douglas of Bristol Community College, President Javier Cevallos of Framingham State University, and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy. The three panelists were joined by two student moderators: Parker Sweet 21, a public health sciences major and Commonwealth Honors College member at UMass Amherst, and Chandler Farley, a Business & IT major from Framingham State. 

Throughout the 45-minute discussion, the three panelists answered numerous questions about their own involvement in undergraduate research, how students can benefit from it, and why students should want to. Each of the panelists had a unique experience and rationale for their involvement in undergraduate research and a love for innovation.  

Chancellor Subbaswamy draws his admiration for research from his undergraduate years in India. “I grew up in India and did my undergraduate research in India, and research opportunities back then were not very common,” said Chancellor Subbaswamy about his days as a student. Although decades ago, Subbaswamy explained that his affinity for learning, specifically physics, came from none other than Thomas Edison. The Chancellor viewed the great American thinker as someone who was always tinkering with something and, in turn, always on the brink of a new discovery.  

Reflecting on her study abroad experience in Mexico, President Douglas reminded listeners that the best way to become passionate about your research is to simply get right into it. She recalled one moment that inspired her to continue doing research. “They put us into pairs and gave us each an envelope, and in that envelope was a name of a town and transportation money,” she said. “We were told to go to that town, find out something unique, research it right there for a day, and come back and talk about what we found.” 

For President Cevallos, however, it was a totally different story. Before beginning his undergraduate research in the humanities, He was taking samples from bat caves and researching them at the University near his home in Puerto Rico. Coming from a family of scientists, Cevallos was a lone wolf in his studies, but that never stopped him. Before he knew it, biology was a figment of the past as he pursued his studies in Latin American literature.  

Despite coming from all walks of life, the panelists agreed that beginning research meant wandering past your comfort zone. “You have to be flexible and willing to learn something new,” President Cevallos said. “Explore and you will discover the wonderful things you can do.”  

President Douglas said that while beginning research for the first time can be nerve-racking, the most rewarding transformation is seeing yourself “mature from a student to a learner to an expert.” When you’re a student, it can feel as though you have so much to learn from your professors, and in a way that you’re somehow lesser, she explained, adding that as you begin to engage in research, sometimes you come to learn more about those subjects than your professors. 

“At first it’s a little bit scary to think you may have more knowledge on a subject than your professors, but it’s very empowering once you get over that initial sense of intimidation,” she said.  

The panelists cited networking as another major benefit from engaging in research at the undergraduate level. They described networking as the system of connections acquired within an institution and throughout a given field across years of undergraduate research. Both Chancellor Subbaswamy and President Douglas spoke to their extensive network of connections, gained both as undergraduates and during their graduate studies.  

Beyond the expansive network of connections gained, President Douglas explained how everyone benefits from undergraduate research. “When we help students engage in undergraduate research, they are more likely not only to complete college, but they are more likely to enter graduate programs,” she said. “That’s one of the biggest benefits of undergraduate research.”  

In a lighter moment during the panel, an attendee asked if there were a soundtrack for this past year, what it would sound like. Chancellor Subbaswamy offered Jaws and slowly made its way to The Sound of Music, a sentiment all the panelists seemed to resonate with.  

As the panel wrapped up, student moderator Parker Sweet left attendees with some wise words. He described the panel as being very “human,” saying that “the panelists have shown the vulnerability that learning requires and the agency which empowerment requires.” One parting piece of advice for the 27th annual MassURC attendees was that in order to involve yourself in research, commitment to growth must be the bottom line, always.