By Katharine Webster
Business major Jennifer Dossantos met her faculty match at an Honors College “mixer.”
The mixer, designed to pair honors students with faculty mentors for research opportunities, followed a speed-dating format, with professors from different departments moving from one table to another every five minutes to woo a new group of students.
Each faculty member explained their research, answered questions and gave out their cards so interested students could follow up.
Dossantos, a first-semester senior with concentrations in management and international business, was looking for an interesting final honors project, an engaged faculty advisor and some research experience.
She found all three with Assoc. Prof. David Claudio in the Industrial Engineering program. Claudio is part of a research team that aims to help towns in Puerto Rico turn closed and abandoned public schools into community centers. Dossantos, who is fluent in Spanish, has signed on to do background research on business models for successful conversions.
“Prof. Claudio was just very personable and seemed really excited about his topic,” she says.
Honors Dean Jenifer Whitten-Woodring says the mixer is one of several initiatives designed to connect honors students with faculty mentors early in college – and to help students who postponed research experiences and internships during the COVID-19 pandemic catch up.
Research experience is valued by employers and is especially important to prepare students who are considering going to graduate school, Whitten-Woodring says. And a structured research experience resulting in a final paper and presentation also can fulfill an honors requirement as an “honors interactive experience.”
The Honors College offers $1,500 fellowships so that students can afford to give up a part-time job while they gain research experience. That’s also a boon for new faculty who don’t have much research funding, Whitten-Woodring says.
Another way the Honors College is expanding the pool of faculty mentors is by recruiting faculty liaisons within academic departments that don’t already have them, she says.
“We’re asking these faculty liaisons to hold meetings with honors students in their second year, or with transfer students as early as possible, and talk with them about what they need to do to get research experience and find a faculty mentor,” she says.
Plastics Engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan says he is always looking to recruit more honors students for projects carried out by the Center for Advanced Materials; HEROES, a research collaboration with the U.S. Army; and the Fabric Discovery Center. He co-directs all three research centers.
While the students usually start off with fellowship funding, Nagarajan says that faculty have money to keep paying undergraduate research assistants if they want to continue. “Funding is the least of our worries,” he says.
He also strongly encourages honors students to come up with their own research projects.
“Some of the Honors College students give our graduate students a run for their money,” Nagarajan says. “They’re on the same level as the graduate students, as far as I’m concerned. Anyone can have a great idea.”
Physical Therapy and Kinesiology Assoc. Prof. Yi-Ning (Winnie) Wu, who leads physiological measurement research in the NERVE Center, says she likes to get honors students involved in research early on, as it takes time for them to learn all of the equipment and research protocols, from formulating a proposal through obtaining Institutional Review Board approval and carrying out a study.
Wu works with a mix of sophomores and more advanced students in a range of majors, including exercise science, physical therapy and biomedical engineering, so they can form peer mentoring relationships. Most start as sophomores with a $4,000 Immersive Scholarship or an honors fellowship and later develop an independent research idea that becomes their honors thesis.
“Undergraduates power our research,” Wu says. “They help us explore new technology we might want to use in our lab, and they’re a friendly interface between the researchers and our human subjects.”
Honors exercise science major Hannah Allgood spent the summer of 2021 learning how to operate the testing equipment in the NERVE Center, helping more experienced students with their research projects and reading scholarly articles on how fatigue affects human performance. Funded over the summer by an Immersive Scholarship, she continues to work with Wu under an Honors College Student Fellowship.
“I’ve started to see more of what the major could be, and I’ve started thinking about different career routes other than traditional one-on-one physical therapy,” says Allgood, who is doing research on whether advanced rehabilitation equipment can help people with lingering post-concussive symptoms. “I came to UMass Lowell for the undergraduate research opportunities.”
In the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, some honors students find faculty mentors through the Emerging Scholars program, which is co-directed by Whitten-Woodring.
English Assoc. Teaching Prof. Kevin Petersen, a scholar of Renaissance literature, has mentored honors students for fellowships as well as senior English majors who wanted to do a deep dive into Machiavelli or Shakespeare’s sonnets for their honors thesis.
“To see these honors students make the most of their educations is really gratifying,” he says.
Last year, he and Assoc. Dean Stacy Szczesiul, who previously only taught graduate students in the School of Education, co-mentored honors English major Melisa Hussain ’21, a Muslim who wanted to research the high school experiences of “visibly Muslim” young women who wear garments that indicate their faith.
Hussain, a transfer student from a community college in Dallas, did a pair of directed studies during her senior year with Szczesiul, who helped her structure the research. Petersen, a first-generation college graduate, advised Hussain on writing her honors thesis and on navigating graduate school. On the strength of her research, Hussain was offered a generous financial package to pursue a Ph.D. in American culture at the University of Michigan.
“Prof. Szczesiul believed in me,” Hussain says. “Prof. Petersen went to community college and had to take out loans to go to a Ph.D. program. He gave me tips on graduate school and recommended books to read about it.”
Szczesiul says mentoring Hussain was rewarding because she learned more about the experiences of Muslim women and undergraduates. She was especially impressed when she attended a virtual group event at which several honors students, including Hussain, gave oral presentations on their final honors theses and projects.
“This was the caliber of work you expect of graduate students,” Szczesiul says.
The students’ presentations also demonstrated the impact a mentor can make, she says.
“The students came in with a level of confidence and sophistication that could only come with very strong mentoring – so credit to the faculty, too.”