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Research for all: UMaine can do more to improve undergraduate research funding

The University of Maine has allocated $137.7 million for research expenditures in 2019. This amount includes faculty, graduate and undergraduate research endeavors and is distributed with the goals, according to the UMaine 2018 research and development plan, to make Maine the best state in the nation to work and live in, to establish an innovative economy in Maine and to prepare the next generation of Maine’s workforce. As a flagship university, UMaine prides itself on its dedication to providing research opportunities for all. However, more can be done to ensure students of all disciplines have access to critical funding needed to pursue undergraduate research. 

One of the largest campus benefactors of undergraduate research endeavors is the Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR), whose mission is to “increase, improve and enhance undergraduate students’ participation and experiences in research, scholarship and creative activity,” according to CUGR’s website. CUGR provides invaluable funding to students every academic year and summer break in the form of travel grants and fellowships. 

During the academic year, undergraduate students can submit research proposals to CUGR for consideration for a $1,100 fellowship, which was “established to help provide financial support for undergraduate students in hopes of creating an environment where students can become involved in meaningful faculty-supervised research,” according to the CUGR website. 

Applicants are asked to provide an abstract of their research, a project description and budget justification with their application, along with a faculty or mentor letter. After submissions, applications are scored on conciseness, presentability, comprehensiveness, innovation and likelihood for success. 

In the 2018-19 academic year, 27 CUGR fellowships were awarded to various undergraduate researchers. Of those 27, one student was a humanities major, two were social science majors, and the rest were science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) majors.  

STEM research is a crucial and important undertaking for UMaine to support. STEM students drive the state forward in innovation, make up a considerable portion of the state’s workforce and contribute to new discoveries every year. However, humanities, social science and other branches of research should not be allowed to fall through the cracks and should be supported and celebrated in the same way that STEM is. 

There are few opportunities for students who study the humanities at UMaine to pursue funded research opportunities. The Humanities Center, named The Clement and Linda McGillicuddy Humanities Center (MHC) in 2017, was established in 2010 to advance “teaching, research, and public knowledge of the humanities,” and support programs “that engage art, literature, history, philosophy, politics and diverse cultures,” according to the center’s website. 

Every year, undergraduate humanities students are able to apply for the MHC Undergraduate Fellowship, which provides $4,000 a semester in funding for a humanities-centered research project. This fellowship lasts two consecutive semesters, and recipients are required to attend all MHC events and programs, participate in a bi-weekly group meeting with a Fellows Coordinator and give one live presentation on campus about their research. 

This program is highly competitive. In the 2019-2020 academic year, only three students were awarded the fellowship. 

The MHC also provides smaller funds for students hoping to travel abroad or to conferences to aid in their research process. And while these opportunities that are provided by the MHC are significant and appreciated by UMaine humanities students, the level of disparity between STEM research funding and humanist research funding is one to consider. 

For undergraduate students, the opportunity to pursue a research project opens many doors. Undergraduate research can be used to help students refine their passions, gauge whether the choice to attend graduate school is right for them and even help students land interviews for future jobs. 

In July of 2017, Forbes magazine published an article highlighting the importance of undergraduate research. The author, Chad Orzel, spoke at length about his own experience as an undergraduate researcher and how it helped guide his path to the future. Orzel stated, “the most important part of research as an undergraduate student is often the transformation of the student, and the things they’ll go on to do in the future.”

In order for students to pursue this invaluable experience, there needs to be adequate funding. Many college students have to conduct research on top of full-time class loads and part-time jobs. Funding for undergraduate research helps to lift financial burdens off of students’ shoulders so they can put more energy and focus into the work that matters: the research they are passionate about. 

UMaine works hard to ensure that its students are prepared for life after graduation. For students, particularly those in the humanities who see less research funding, new or more extensive programs should be established in order to provide support that could guarantee  UMaine support research for all.

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