History of the URO-Undergraduate Research Office - Carnegie Mellon University

20th anniversary

The History of the Undergraduate Research Office

Students at the modern research university are told even before they matriculate that they will have the opportunity to be involved in cutting-edge research. As a result, most students expect to perform research as part of their undergraduate education and see it as an integral part of their curriculum. However, the development of large-scale, institutionalized undergraduate research programs at many top-tier research universities like Carnegie Mellon is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the 1990s, students at Carnegie Mellon did not share the same expectations regarding the opportunities that were open to them at the university as students do today. Though undergraduate research at Carnegie Mellon has been taking place at the departmental level since the early 1970s, it was not until 1989 that Carnegie Mellon developed a centralized undergraduate research program open to all university students. As this trend progressed throughout higher education institutions in the 1990s, Carnegie Mellon's program became a nationally recognized model and, in 2009, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary.

Beginnings: 1970s and 1980s

Beginning in the early 1970s, students in Mellon College of Science participated in the first formalized research program, working alongside faculty on faculty-designed projects. Elizabeth Jones, professor of biological sciences, began to formalize the way in which undergraduates came into laboratories and joined research projects. Throughout the 1980s, individual departments and colleges sponsored undergraduate research within this small-scale, department-controlled model. For example, nearly every department offered an independent research course and colleges gave select students the opportunity to do a senior honors thesis.

These decentralized beginnings came at a time when many of the top research universities in the nation were criticized for giving preference to faculty research and graduate education at the expense of the undergraduate curriculum. With faculty interested in producing quality research and no formal way of bringing undergraduates into the fold, they could be left out of the process. Equally significant, faculty who did advise undergraduate research projects frequently found that this enormous investment of time did not count towards tenure. Finally, there were few established programs to provide guidance: most notably the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology served as a model for Carnegie Mellon's efforts.

Barbara Lazarus

Barbara Lazarus, then associate provost for academic projects, was particularly attuned to the national conversation on how research universities should engage their undergraduates. (Barbara Lazarus served Carnegie Mellon in several capacities from 1985 until her death in 2003.) Lazarus not only supported institutionalized, large-scale undergraduate research, which had only been implemented in a handful of other colleges and universities at that point, but also advocated for an expansive definition of research to include all disciplines, the arts and humanities as well as engineering and  

science. She proposed building on Carnegie Mellon's renowned interdisciplinary character, by supporting a collaborative approach to learning-one that integrated teaching and research across departments and colleges. Lazarus recognized that research was central to the university and sought, as she said many times, "to bring undergraduates into the very heart of the institution."

Lazarus began her work with two pilot projects: a directory of research opportunities and a small grant program. Almost immediately, it became clear that there was a need for more and better information on the types of research taking place within the university. In the years before such information became readily available on the web, and with Carnegie Mellon's tradition of decentralization which impeded coordinated data gathering, it was extremely difficult for students to tell which professors were doing research, what their research specialties were, and whether or not undergraduates had ever been attached to their projects. This, in turn, made it hard for undergraduates to understand where and in what capacity they could engage in research. Undergraduate advisors, individual faculty, and administrators also lacked an easy source of information about what research activities were taking place across the university. Lazarus published the first Directory of Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities for the 1989-1990 academic year with an advisory committee of Joseph E. Devine, Association Dean of H&SS, Robert P. Kail, Associate Dean of CIT, and Tom Keating, Director of Student Employment.

The Directory proved crucial to building the expectation that research faculty should want to be involved in mentoring undergraduates in the research process and that students should want to do research. In the summer of 1990, Lazarus hired Jessie Ramey, then a rising senior who had been working for her as a student assistant, to produce a second, greatly expanded, Directory. Published annually in hard copy format, the Directory was an immensely time-intensive project, yet Lazarus believed it would help facilitate a culture-shift at Carnegie Mellon. "When we started working on the Directory," explains Ramey, "there were only a few faculty in most departments who self-identified as special contacts for undergraduates interested in research and we cleverly listed their names in bold. But within a couple years, the vast majority of faculty were telling us to list their names in bold - a subtle, but important culture-shift." During the decade of its publication, when new research centers and institutes were cropping up in every college, the Directory also became a key resource for the administration, a ready-reference for research activities throughout the institution. Lazarus and Ramey won the Outstanding Publication Award from the National Academic Advising Association in 1991 for their work on the Directory.

Small Undergraduate Research Grants

In addition to the research directory, a second pilot program launched in 1989 provided Small Undergraduate Research Grants (SURG) to students in need of funding for their projects. Lazarus felt that many more undergraduates might participate in research and pursue their own ideas if they could only get a modest amount of support for materials and supplies. The SURG program, which proved instantly popular and became synonymous with Carnegie Mellon's effort to promote undergraduate research, provided grants up to $500 for individuals and $1,000 for students working in groups. The first nine grants were awarded in the Fall of 1989 for the Spring 1990 semester with funding from the Eden Hall Foundation and the Lilly Foundation. Many of the original selection committee members are still with the university and helping to celebrate the program's twentieth anniversary, including Tom Keating, now faculty in computer science, Mark Stehlik, associate dean in SCS, Linda Kauffman, biological sciences faculty, and Joseph Devine, associate dean in H&SS.

The SURG program was one of the first of its kind in the nation and boasted a number of innovative elements. First, the program supported students in all fields, using an inclusive definition of research to encompass the humanities and social sciences as well as equivalent creative activities in the arts, in addition to the more traditional science and engineering disciplines.  Second, proposals were student initiated; students were encouraged to think of their own research projects and did not necessarily have to work on an existing faculty project (the dominant paradigm in science and engineering research). Third, the program was open to undergraduates at all levels, including first year students, and was purposefully designed not to be reserved as a "capstone" experience. Finally, the program promoted cross-disciplinary exploration and interdisciplinary collaboration. For instance, it became common to see art students working with robotics faculty and the grants encouraged students to collaborate by designing research groups composed of students from different departments and colleges. "In all these ways," says Ramey, "we emphasized process over product: our program supported students through the entire research process, from conception to grant writing to presentation of results, without focusing on an end-product." These characteristics remain cornerstones of Carnegie Mellon's undergraduate research program.

Bold Expansion: The Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI)

In the spring of 1991,    Jessie Ramey (now graduated) became the founding director of the newly constituted Undergraduate Research Initiative, consolidating the Directory, SURG grants, and other research support services under one roof. Working out of borrowed space on the second floor of Smith Hall and with furniture loaned by the Center for the Design of Educational Computing, Ramey began to expand the office, adding several new programs. She launched the Presentation Award program in 1992, granting students up to $250 to present their work at academic conferences. Ramey also added advising services for students, "matchmaking" assistance for faculty looking for undergraduate collaborators, a series of efforts to formally recognize undergraduates involved in research, and seminars on topics ranging from presentation skills to ethics in research. Under her leadership, the SURG program grew dramatically and within a few years was regularly making grants to more than 150 students totaling over $50,000 a year, a ten-fold increase from its earliest year. In the summer of 1993, the URI relocated to a larger space the fourth floor of Warner Hall, and Ramey and her colleagues finally had an office of their own.

In May of 1996, Ramey introduced the first undergraduate research symposium, "Meeting of the Minds," a one-day conference giving all students the opportunity to present their work to one another and to the larger campus community. The symposium grew quickly and now showcases over 450 students each spring, representing all fields, and demonstrating Carnegie Mellon's unique level of inter-disciplinary collaboration. The Meeting of the Minds covers the University Center with poster and oral presentations, art installations, film and performance pieces, robots, boats, racecars and other demonstrations. "We knew we had hit the mark," remembers Ramey, "when a notoriously skeptical faculty member remarked excitedly, ‘This is the academic equivalent of Spring Carnival!'"

At its inception, the program had had its share of skeptics and critics. It quickly became apparent that any program would have to overcome a strong suspicion on the part of faculty towards centralization. Some were wary of a centralized, administration-run system of undergraduate research, which they worried would take away department control over the depth and breadth of research. Institutionalization of undergraduate research had not yet gained traction at the national level and there were few model programs available. Barbara Lazarus met with success in fleshing out her early vision for the program by engaging the Associate Dean's Council, a group of mid-level academic administrators deeply embedded in their respective colleges and departments. When Jessie Ramey joined a year later, she regularly "made rounds," visiting with each department and college to make sure the program was serving the needs of all students and building good will.

The Initiative received a significant boost towards institutionalization in 1992 with the release of the final report of the Task Force on Undergraduate Research. Appointed by the President and Provost in 1991, the Task Force was one of several groups asked to look at key issues facing the university and to make recommendations. The Task Force, consisting of faculty and student representatives from across campus, spent a year investigating programs around the country and tracking undergraduates through the numerous paths they took to perform research (from research courses and honors programs to lab assistantships, unpaid work with faculty, and off-campus internships, just to name a few). One of the Task Force's key recommendations was to formalize the Undergraduate Research Initiative with budget lines for staff and programming.

Up to this point, the Initiative had been operating completely on soft funding. Lazarus and Ramey wrote numerous grant proposals to foundations, cultivated relationships with corporate donors, and pieced together funding for their programs with small pots of funding begged from departments, colleges, and the Office of the Provost. Ramey recalls, "My first year, I took a four-fifths salary to keep the program afloat, but worked six days or more a week. We were entirely soft-funded the first few years and I didn't know from one year to the next if I would have a job." Early donors included the ARCO Chemical Company, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Merck & Co., Inc., the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Carnegie Corporation of New York, TRW Inc., William Randolph Hearst Foundation, Motorola Inc., United Technologies, Raymond John Wean Foundation, Intel Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, GE Foundation, and the Howard and Nell E. Miller Foundation.

By 1994, the Undergraduate Research Initiative had stabilized somewhat with a modest general operating line in the university budget, though the program still relied heavily on external donors to fund its grants. It had also moved from Smith Hall, at the periphery of the university, to Warner Hall, literally and symbolically closer to the heart of campus. And by the mid-1990s, the Initiative was able to hire an assistant to help support the ever-expanding number of students performing research under its auspices. In 1994, Ramey launched an endowment campaign aimed at creating a sustainable source of support for student research. The campaign's first major donor, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation, granted the Initiative $100,000 to endow grants for students doing research in the humanities. Today, the program has over thirty endowed funds, with more established each year, providing crucial long-term support for undergraduate research.

As the Initiative's funding steadied in this period, its relationship with corporations continued to grow. Interested in recruiting Carnegie Mellon's talented undergraduate research students, additional companies signed on including Lubrizol, Allied Signal, Andersen Consulting, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, Dell, and IBM. Several began to sponsor competitions and award prizes at the Meeting of the Minds and others provided research and internship opportunities of their own. For example, Merck created an internship program that allowed Carnegie Mellon students to work in the pharmaceutical industry.

The Undergraduate Research Initiative also began to take on a national role. Ramey was elected as a national representative to the Council on Undergraduate Research (1994-1997, and re-elected 1997-2000), a professional association that consisted primarily of science faculty from teaching colleges who hoped to promote best practices and lobby for federal dollars in support of undergraduate research. Through the Council, she lobbied for an expanded definition of research and the inclusion of research institutions, which eventually received their own division within the organization. Ramey also began publishing articles to share Carnegie Mellon's model and advised numerous other institutions that were in the process of launching their own undergraduate research programs.

A prestigious award from the National Science Foundation helped to further bolster the university's reputation as a national model for undergraduate research. In 1997, the NSF granted Carnegie Mellon a $500,000 Recognition Award for the Integration of Research and Education (RAIRE). The award recognized a handful of research universities that had successfully combined their research and education missions and noted Carnegie Mellon's strong leadership in undergraduate research. With its share of the RAIRE award, the Initiative was able to develop the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, which awards $3,000 grants to undergraduates for ten weeks of summer research in any field of study.

By the time Ramey left the director position in 1998, all of the main elements of the Undergraduate Research Initiative that exist today were in place: the SURG and SURF programs, the presentation award program, the Meeting of the Minds symposium, strong support from faculty, administrators and students, and solid university funding in partnership with corporations, foundations, and individual donors.

Initiative to Office: The URI grows roots

In the fall of 1998, Janet Stocks became the second Director of Undergraduate Research and further expanded the Initiative's programs. The total annual budget of the Initiative grew from $75,000 between1992 and 1997 to $207,528 in the 1999-2000 academic year. As a result, the number of SURG grants awarded grew from about 160 during the 1990s to over 250 by 2000. The percentage of proposals that were group projects also increased dramatically, from 15 percent between 1991 and 1999 to 35 percent in fall 2000 and fall 2001. Stocks expanded the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program and launched a new program aimed at first year students with support from the Intel Foundation. Named the Intel First Year Research Experience (IFYRE) program, it continues to draw first and second year students into highly technical work in collaboration with Intel researchers located next to the main campus.

In 1999, the Initiative website featured an online edition of the research directory for the first time. The office also offered a year-long seminar for all students seeking to expand their research skills and started an alumni publication to keep in touch with the growing number of former students who had benefited from the program.

In 2002, Stocks and the advisory committee decided to change the name of the Initiative, which suggested a temporary or trial effort, to the Undergraduate Research Office (URO), to better reflect its status as a stable, institutionalized program. The URO was established as the largest part of the Division of the Vice Provost for Education, under Indira Nair, and served to solidify the relationship between undergraduate research and the university's educational mission.

Under New Management: The URO Becomes a University Institution

By the time Stephanie Wallach signed on as Director in 2006, the URO was an established hub for undergraduate research funding. Wallach, who holds the joint title of Assistant Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, gained six new corporate sponsors and $592,375 in new endowed funds, which allowed the office to increase the number of SURF grants by over 50 percent. Wallach also revised the application process for SURG and SURF grants, requiring additional academic and biographical information and instituting a new application format for students applying in the arts and humanities to better match their research methodologies. In addition, Wallach expanded the IFYRE program, a student research program funded by Intel from a handful of participants upon its inception in 2004 to a thriving program of over 30 first- and second-year students by 2007. It is now considered a model university-industry partnership.

In addition, Wallach oversaw two projects aimed at improving communication between students, advisors, and the URO staff. First, Wallach overhauled the Fellowship Resource Advising Center (FRAC), which had been taken over and directed by Stocks in the late nineties. The FRAC administered external funding for both undergraduate and graduate students. Its mission was similar to that of the URO, with both providing counseling and advising services to students, but there was little collaboration between the two. Wallach completely reconfigured the FRAC to better engage students interested in applying for external scholarships and fellowships earlier in their academic careers and work with them on the applications. The office was renamed the Fellowships and Scholarships Office (FSO) in 2007 to reflect the range of opportunities that were available through the office, and now works hand in hand with the URO.

Wallach also implemented three new additions to the services offered by the URO. The first was the adoption of the undergraduate research journal Thought in 2007, formerly published social and decision sciences major Victoria Long. Thought is published annually by a team of undergraduate students from all disciplines with the assistance of two graduate students in the Master's in Professional Writing program (MAPW). The second was that the office started participating in the "Posters at the Pennsylvania Capital" program in fall 2007, in which two Carnegie Mellon students travel to Harrisburg, along with undergraduate students from other research institutions, to present their research projects to legislators. And in 2008, the URO added a third program to the SURG/SURF family. The ISURG program, in collaboration with the Office of International Education, provides funding for students who wish to conduct research while they study abroad. In addition, Wallach was able to increase the value of SURF grants from $3000 to $3500.

As a result of the increase in corporate sponsorship and endowed funds, the URO was able to fund more student research projects, which in turn increased the number of applicants designing their own projects and applying for funding. The office received only 41 project proposals involving 51 students for the Spring 2006 semester, prior to Wallach's inception as director. One year later, for the Spring 2007 semester, the office received 76 project proposals involving 133 students, and for Spring 2008, 120 project proposals involving 201 students.

The Undergraduate Research Office continues to grow and thrive at Carnegie Mellon. In this twentieth anniversary year, Wallach plans to continue the long tradition of innovation that has characterized the Undergraduate Research Office since its inception in a borrowed office, no budget, and big ideas.