Students do ‘real work’ in undergrad research projects

By Marc Larocque

With the opportunity to do “real” work rather than writing papers, most students don’t know undergraduate research is a great way to advance their careers, said Mariko Howe, a senior behavioral science major.

“It’s almost weird to know that some students go their whole Northeastern career without this great experience,” she said.

Howe was one of three students to present her experience with undergraduate research (UR) to about 15 students gathered for a Student Government Association (SGA) sponsored event called “Make UR Make Sense” last night in Shillman Hall. It was the first event of Northeastern’s yearly Undergraduate Research Expo, which will be held March 28 in Cabot Center.

Almost every professor has to do research as part of their tenure at Northeastern, Howe said, and students are needed for assistance.

“Students that participate in [undergraduate research] do more practical work and can get more desirable jobs than students that just take classes,” she said. “[It] allows Northeastern students to compete on the levels of Harvard, MIT and graduates of any other elite schools.”

Howe, whose most memorable experience with undergraduate research has been attending a conference for the Society of Neuroscience, said she feels that she is treated more as a peer with professors, rather than a “pesky” student in class.

Chika Vchiyama approached her chemistry professor one day, not expecting success, but wondering if there was any research work she could do, like helping him “mix some buffer solutions and clean up around the laboratory.”

The professor said he had a project that she could work on two hours a day as a volunteer.

“You don’t have to be smarter than anyone to get … work,” said the junior medical lab science major. “Coming from a different country, I barely knew English when I first came to Northeastern.”

Vchiyama got some of her research work published, but a professor has to be willing to put students’ names on the work, she said.

“Professors will just say ‘it’s mine’ a lot of the time,” she said. “I got lucky.”

Esther Chou, a senior economics and international affairs major, has taken UR work out of the Ivory Tower of academia and into the Third World.

Since high school Chou has been devoted to helping those suffering from famine, poverty and AIDS in Africa. She applied to Northeastern but had her first year deferred to volunteer at a children’s home for those orphaned because of AIDS.

“I wasn’t interested in the academic aspect of relief at first,” she said. “But a Northeastern professor said to me, ‘You can’t just be a compassionate person, you have to have the facts to reason why these things happen.'”

In 2005, Chou returned to the country of Zambia with Forge, a refugee relief organization started by a Stanford student in 2003. Forge teaches art to children and microfinance initiatives to adults at a refugee community of 14,000, she said.

After returning to Northeastern, Chou took a government and politics in Africa course with professor Kwamini Panford, who introduced her to research of microfinancing, she said.

Chou wanted to do more. With help from Panford she proposed a research project on microfinancing. After some “pretty hard work,” Chou raised more than $12,000 in donations from the Northeastern provost and private investors, to start microfinancing initiatives with the money.

Past research on microfinancing shows when men invest money, the payback rate is about 20 percent, she said. But with women it is around 90 percent.

“But the research before seemed misleading,” she said. “My research project would prove the prospects of microfinancing in these impoverished areas.”

After successfully petitioning for a second international co-op, Chou returned to the Zambian refugee camp and handled the application process for the project.

“My experience has shown me that students can actually change the world doing [undergraduate research] work,” she said. “You just have to work hard to get support, though, this school is well endowed.”

Amanda Sabia, a freshman biology and political science double major, said she was inspired by the presenters.

“As a freshman this event helped me realize how possible getting research published really is,” Sabia said. “Quite honestly, this seems like hard work, but the presenters seemed like hard workers and I feel I can be too.”

Today there will be an event called “How-To-Do UR” at 6 p.m. in Dodge Hall.

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