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Undergrads Find Persistence is Key to Their Research Successes

Academic celebrations are typically chronicles of success. But at the annual Celebration of Student Scholarship, held May 4 at the Center for the Arts, a surprising theme was failure. That’s because even successful research, as hundreds of Mason undergraduates learn each year, often involves rounds of repeated failures—necessary steps on the path to the final result.

Divya Gutala, an alumna who earned her degree in Neuroscience in 2015, was just one of many students at the Celebration of Student Scholarship who spoke of early struggles during their first exposure to serious research. The undergraduate research topic that Divya chose was daunting: how do neuroinflammatory biomarkers related to stress in the brain increase vulnerability to traumatic brain injury? With the help of her faculty mentor, Divya persisted through the challenges of lab work. “Research taught me patience, and how to combine speed with precision,” she recalled at the event. “I’m glad my persistence has paid off. Now I have a newfound love for research.”

Mason’s Program Hailed as “National Model”

Presented by the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), the Celebration of Student Scholarship is an annual showcase for the Students as Scholars program, which provides funding and support for the scholarly work of hundreds of Mason undergraduates each year. Students representing every school of the university presented posters summarizing their research projects in fields ranging from bioengineering to economics, from ecology to anthropology, and from political science to dance.

The power of persistence was a lesson also shared by Francis Aguisanda, BS Biology ‘14, for whom the Students as Scholars opportunity was a life-changing experience. Francis landed a position in Dr. Daniel Cox’s neuroscience lab, but after one semester, he told Dr. Cox that he might have to quit: “I wasn’t sure that I could balance my life in the lab with my extracurriculars and with being a student. But with the encouragement of Dr. Cox and my friends, I persevered.” Francis now works as a research fellow at the National Institutes of Health, and in the fall of 2016 he will begin the PhD program in Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at Stanford University.

At most universities, research of this depth and caliber is the province of graduate students. But in this (as in so must else!), Mason is exceptional. More than 3,600 undergraduates have completed research projects over the past four years, says Dr. Bethany Usher, director of the Students as Scholars program. These undergrads have not only planned and carried out a research project, but also publicly shared results outside of the classroom.

The amazing success of Students as Scholars was highlighted when the Council on Undergraduate Research, a leading national organization, awarded Mason its 2015 Campus-wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment. In honoring Mason’s program as the best in the nation, the council called Students as Scholars a “national model for other institutions to emulate.”

Opportunities to Support Student Scholarship

Between its impressive impact on students’ lives, and national recognition for its excellence, Students as Scholars is clearly one of the jewels in Mason’s crown. And there is plenty of room to grow. As Dr. Usher says, “One of our goals is that every student has the opportunity to do research here.”

Surprisingly, philanthropic support currently accounts for virtually none of the program’s annual budget. As a result, it must scrape for such essential elements as funding students to travel to and present at the annual National Conference for Undergraduate Research. Examples of how charitable gifts could be used include:

  • A gift of $500 for the travel fund will allow one undergraduate student to share his or her research project at a national conference.
  • A gift of $1,500 supports one student with a research grant during the fall or spring semester.
  • A gift of $5,000 provides one student with a full-time summer stipend, alleviating the need for an extra job and making it possible to work all summer on an intensive research project with a faculty mentor.

If you would like to support a student by making a gift to Students as Scholars, please use our online giving form and designate your gift to “Undergraduate Research Programs.” If you prefer to give by mail, you may send your check to: Office of Advancement and Alumni Relations, 4400 University Drive, MS 1A3, Fairfax, VA 22030. We are happy to answer your questions or provide further information; please call the Office of Advancement at 703-993-8850.

May 16, 2016 / RR