Students and faculty grow through undergraduate research

In This Story

People Mentioned in This Story

Undergraduate research experiences that include a mentoring relationship can be incredibly powerful, positively impacting the lives and work of both the student and faculty. And while many universities focus faculty mentoring efforts on graduate students, George Mason University’s goals to not only “expand the impact of Mason’s research, scholarship, and creative enterprise” but also to “deliver a distinctive and inclusive student experience” provide a vast wealth of opportunities for undergraduate students to gain hands-on experience under the direct supervision from faculty who are leaders in their disciplines.

Many of these relationships are made possible through the Office of Student Creative Activities and Research (OSCAR), which supports undergraduates who want to participate in a research or creative project by connecting them to opportunities, helping to fund their projects, and identifying mentors. It is a reciprocal and beneficial relationship that allows faculty and students to learn from one another, providing a path to knowledge transfer, and helping one another in whatever capacity that they can.

“Through mentoring undergraduate research, the [faculty] mentor can spark the student’s passion for research and their interest in their discipline. For many, this is their only opportunity to work with undergraduate students one-on-one on a meaningful project,” Jesse Guessford, director of curriculum and initiatives in Undergraduate Education, said.

Faculty who mentor undergraduate researchers not only have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values, they can also experience a renewed enthusiasm for their work and gather ideas for other projects as a result of a student’s contribution. The relationship also allows them assistance in the pursuit of their own scholarly endeavors. Research that actively involves undergraduates achieves a number of benefits for faculty, including: keeping them intellectually vigorous, allowing them to make contributions to the field, and enhancing their quality of teaching.

For assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry Fei Wang, most of his research projects and proposals have been funded by OSCAR. As a result, he has had the opportunity to work with undergraduate students for years which he finds gratifying.

“It’s really fulfilling to see students grow and to see their points of view. There is nothing more rewarding as an educator to see students become independent learners and independent thinkers, be equipped with these necessary tools to solve real world problems,” Wang said.

Afra Saeed Ahmad, associate professor of psychology, understands the importance of undergraduate research from both a student and faculty perspective—as an undergraduate student in the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program and graduate student responsible for running labs, as well as a faculty mentor who has the opportunity to work with and support the next generation of students and scholars.

“[As a mentor] it’s fun to get students who apply for different opportunities like a book chapter proposal or grant application and when they get it, they see what they’re capable of accomplishing,” she said.

For students, participating in research can alter their path for the rest of their career not only at George Mason, but also for the rest of their lives. Creating a close relationship with their mentor gives students a sense of belonging at the university and within their field. Through these mentoring relationships, the students learn how to research and create, how to share their findings with the world, and how to become advocates for their educational passions.

Kinesiology major Kayleigh Newman applied for an OSCAR award “on a whim” two years ago, not thinking she would get it. To her surprise, however, she was presented with the opportunity to work on a Summer Team Impact Project in kinesiology. “Everyone I’ve worked with, from the undergrads I started doing research with and the PhD students I’ve been working with, have taught me so much,” she said.

Victoria Gonzales, a double major in computational data science and statistics described her favorite part of undergraduate research as “working in a team. George Mason is diverse, I love working with all types of people and learning more about new perspectives.” She described her mentor, assistant professor of information science Myeong Lee, as “a huge contributor” to her success.

A virtual Celebration of Student Scholarship and Impact is showing through Friday, May 3.

Visit the OSCAR website to learn more about this year's recipients and their projects.