Wallach Builds Support for Undergraduate Research
By Bruce Gerson
Stephanie Wallach is using her skills as an adviser, mentor and administrator to feed students’ appetite for research.
As assistant vice provost for undergraduate education, Wallach runs the Undergraduate Research Office (URO), which works to connect and assist students with research opportunities by networking with faculty and through a variety of funding programs.
“There’s a great desire on the part of our students to get involved in research, and we have amazing faculty who want to nurture this next stage of talent in the world,” she said. “We have to make sure students who have an interest in undergraduate research have the opportunity to pursue it.”
Wallach and her team administer several programs to help students in every field of study. Students can apply for Small Undergraduate Research Grants (SURG), Small Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF), international grants and fellowships, summer apprenticeships, and interdisciplinary, or crosswalk, grants. Wallach also oversees the Jennings Family Companion Fund, which enables students to study, conduct research and participate in service projects abroad.
“We’ve developed and expanded undergraduate research on campus tremendously,” said Wallach, who was nominated for an Andy Award this year for her innovative and creative contributions. “We’ve created several new programs and added an educational component that works with students on their research proposal writing. We want them to be successful in applying for research grants.”
Wallach noted the addition of Speak Up!, a series of four summer workshops that help students explain their research and enhance their communications skills. The series culminates with students giving a three-minute presentation about their work before a panel of judges.
“Undergraduate research opens up new ways for students to see themselves and their potential careers.”
More and more students have been applying for research grants. Wallach said her team received 131 SURF and about 210 SURG program applicants last year. Approximately 150 students participated in the Summer Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship (SURA) program. And a record-setting 700 students presented at the 2019 Meeting of the Minds, an annual showcase of undergraduate research that will celebrate its 25th anniversary next May.
Wallach said research can be a life-changing experience for students.
“Undergraduate research opens up new ways for students to see themselves and their potential careers,” Wallach said. “They build close relationships with faculty, they experiment without fear and they test out things that may take them in directions they did not anticipate, but that’s what they should be doing.
“They can learn what it really means to master an area — what it means to know something better than 99% of other people. It changes things,” she said.
Wallach also heads the Fellowships and Scholarships Office (FSO), which helps students apply for highly competitive national and international undergraduate and post-graduate awards. It’s no coincidence she has seen a rise in student interest.
“Undergraduate research often is imperative in order to compete for many national scholarships,” she said. “We’re fortunate that our undergraduate research and fellowships and scholarships offices are coupled together. We’ve worked to foster a close connection. Many offices across the country find this a compelling model.”
Wallach has a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University, and master’s degrees in education from the University of Chicago and University of California, Berkeley. She joined CMU in 1995 and has been supporting students ever since.
“I feel privileged to be at this university, to have this level of support and to work with these great students.”
Her first assignment at CMU was directing an internship program for students in the History Department and the Philosophy Department's Ethics, History & Public Policy program; later she became an adviser for history students and the newly established international relations majors. She also assumed responsibility for CMU’s Milton and Cynthia Friedman Internship program, which places students in government internships in Washington, D.C. Wallach became director of the URO and FSO in 2006.
“I love working with the students,” she said. “I feel privileged to be at this university, to have this level of support and to work with these great students.”
And students love working with her. Wallach shared a text message from a recent graduate.
“You are my best mentor. I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,” wrote the 2019 alumna.
In her spare time, Wallach enjoys playing tennis, golf and pickle ball, cooking, reading and taking advantage of the many cultural offerings of Pittsburgh.
“Coming from New York and the Bay Area, we never imagined we would love Pittsburgh like we do,” she said.
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