One of the keys to a successful undergraduate research experience at UC San Diego is to give yourself enough time to explore opportunities and lay the groundwork for collaborating with faculty mentors and advisors.
Don’t be afraid to venture outside the box, ask friends and classmates for help and attend lectures outside your field that might be of interest. Alternatively, come up with your own idea and browse the Net for faculty members who might be able to help.
You will need this if you require lab access, guidance in designing your project, or course credit. Even if you don’t require a full-time sponsor, first-time advice would be worthwhile in setting up your project, learning how to use lab or other research facilities, and getting a first-time or occasional critique about the feasibility of your project. Discuss your original research idea with a faculty member who is doing research that you find interesting.
In addition to talking with faculty, network with friends, and consult academic advisors and department staff. Ask whether specific departments have fairs or sessions or Web sites where they showcase their students’ research efforts. And take a look at the case studies on this portal.
Students can work on faculty-initiated research, which exposes them to exploration already underway, or they can create their own student-initiated project. Faculty mentorship will be important in either case. Also keep in mind which projects are suitable for lower-division students and which for upper classmen.
It takes extensive time and forethought to shape a comprehensive research experience. For the project itself, you will need to 1) develop a question 2) research what’s already known 3) create a plan and 4) disseminate findings.
Reference the Opportunities page of this site to find out about specific types of projects and where you can learn more about them. To help narrow your search, project types are categorized by paths for exploration.
Many students organize their projects around courses in academic departments. Also available are specialized programs through the Academic Enrichment Programs—the Faculty Mentor and McNair Programs, along with the Summer Research Program.
UC San Diego is also home to a wealth of individual research units, called Organized Research Units. Consult with ORU staff or faculty to see if there are volunteer or other research opportunities available.
A number of institutions, professional societies and other programs offer funding for undergraduate research projects. Check with your department, college and professors for specifics. As a leading-edge research institution, UC San Diego has a strong commitment to assisting eligible students during their years at the university, as they conduct undergraduate research. For more information, see Undergraduate Scholarships.
College: Muir College, third year
Double major: cognitive science and biological anthropology
Research project: McNair scholar: Dietary Behaviors of Savanna Baboons in East Africa
Summer 2009 was life changing for Damien. He left for East Africa to study the diet of savanna baboons in northern Kenya. He returned to UCSD with a passion for wildlife conservation and a tentative blueprint for an ecotourism career. Upon graduation in 2011, he plans to pursue a Ph.D in anthropology with an emphasis on wildlife conservation.
Damien’s mentor, Professor Margaret J. Schoeninger, studies the evolution of the primate diet. Her paleodiet laboratory analyzes carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope ratios in various organic materials, including teeth. Damien, who is enrolled in a 199 independent study course, spends about 12 hours a week at the lab. This past summer, he supported Schoeninger’s research by collecting data on the diets and habitats of living baboons.
“Baboons are omnivorous, opportunistic feeders. . .they’re considered a pest,” he says. Yet they exhibit the same sort of social organization and primate behaviors that gorillas and chimpanzees do—and people travel to Africa to see these primates. Chimps need to be viewed in rehab centers and gorillas are endangered—but baboons are everywhere. “Perhaps you could retool the mindset of local communities—who would then see baboons as a source of tourism and income,” says Damien.
As a first-generation college student with a GPA of 3.0 or better and designs on a Ph.D., Damien was eligible for a UCSD McNair program grant. As one of 30 recipients in 2009, he received $3,500, which supported the East African trip.
Suffering from a hearing loss in one ear, Damien became discouraged as a youngster and dropped out of high school. He was nearly 40 when he enrolled at City College. After working in information technology and marketing for several years, “I figured it was time,” he says. To bridge the transition from a community college to a four-year research university, Howard Hughes Medical Institute awarded him $2,000 for a six-week summer program.