Undergraduates Acquire First-Hand Research Experience at IPR

Long-running program pairs students with faculty mentors


Participants in IPR's 2014 Summer Undergraduate Research Assistant Program joined IPR Director David Figlio (front row, left) and IPR education researcher and program director James Rosenbaum (front row, right).

As summer fades and autumn sets in, Northwestern undergraduates return to campus—many with tales from their summer spent in retail, nonprofits, or the financial sector. But 33 undergraduates will come back with an entirely different tale—one about designing, conducting, and analyzing a research experiment with top IPR researchers.

Summer 2014 marked the 17th year of IPR’s Summer Undergraduate Research Assistants (SURA) program. The undergraduate research assistants were directly involved in a policy-relevant, social science research project alongside one of 28 IPR faculty mentors.

Bianca Maria Marin, a sophomore psychology major, collaborated with IPR labor and education economist Kirabo Jackson and IPR social psychologist Mesmin Destin on a classroom experiment evaluating student learning and peer influence. Marin helped to organize the mock class in which the experiment will take place, from recruiting incoming freshmen study subjects to drafting documents for the Institutional Review Board.

“I had the chance to apply first-hand the theory learned in my research methods classes, and to experience first-hand how much work and attention to detail is required to design a valid and reliable experiment,” Marin said.

It is these hands-on research experiences that set the SURA program apart, according to its director, IPR education researcher James Rosenbaum.

“The goal of the program is to give students experience in … how to apply the kinds of things that they’re learning in their classes,” Rosenbaum said. “Applying what they know really deepens their understanding.”

Nicholas Wang, a senior majoring in anthropology, worked with Frank Penedo, a professor of medical social sciences and IPR associate, and his research team in recruiting patients for a study delivering technology-based psychosocial interventions to improve quality of life and reduce symptom burden in patients undergoing treatment for advanced prostate cancer.

According to Penedo, Wang was an indispensable member of the research team.

“There are many challenges in recruiting and engaging advanced cancer patients in behavioral trials. Nicholas' articulate, engaging, and proactive disposition was key in our success this summer,” Penedo said in an e-mail. “Nicholas also played a critical role in assisting us with complex literature searches for an upcoming grant submission. He was a key figure in our team.”

For Wang, who is also a premedical student, the SURA program allowed him to explore the intersection of anthropology and medicine.

“I see the two of them as very complementary, almost two sides of the same coin,” Wang said. “So the IPR program really fit well with what I was looking for in a summer research program.”

Wang plans to draw on these experiences for his anthropology capstone project and, potentially, for an honors thesis.

Marin also plans to use her SURA experiences in the future.

“As I get closer and closer to the end of the project, I feel more and more committed to a research and academic career in psychology,” she said.