Undergraduate Research: A High-impact, Transformational Dive Into Intellectual Pursuits

by President Lori Bettison-Varga

Lori Bettison-VargaAsk anyone with a graduate degree about the research she did along her academic journey toward her thesis or dissertation and you might hear things like: challenging, engrossing, stimulating. The best part is that when it’s done, you have confidence in your ability to contribute uniquely to your discipline. But it can be a long path to that point!

If you ask Scripps College students about their senior thesis experience you likely will hear them respond with the same mix of frustration and delight. When they begin their senior year, I have heard students say: “I have no idea what I am going to do because I have so many questions I want to answer!” Framing their research into a feasible project—to be done in either a semester or an academic year, depending on the discipline—is one of the greatest challenges our students face. And, it is also the case that as our students face thesis on the front end, it can look like a long upward hill to climb.

However, unlike graduate programs, thesis research for our students is one component of a well-rounded academic and co-curricular agenda in which a variety of courses, disciplines, and interests are still very much in play. They balance their all-consuming thesis project with classes, completing other projects and assignments, taking tests—and working at on- and off-campus jobs, serving on campus life committees, and participating in club activities. It is a juggling act.

The Scripps College faculty has designed a curriculum that embraces research and prepares our students for the challenge of senior thesis, recognizing that the outcomes for our students are deeper learning and intellectual engagement. Each student’s career is bookended by research and/or creative projects. In the sophomore year, the Core 3 project offers small seminar classes designed to foster innovation toward investigation of an interdisciplinary topic. Summer and course-embedded research activities add depth to their experiences.

If you accept that undergraduate research, including the senior thesis, reflects the ultimate in academic rigor across all academic fields of study, I hope you realize as well that it also provides a high-impact, transformational dive into intellectual and creative pursuits. It’s a platform for the future that serves our alumnae exceedingly well as they pursue careers in any field or continue on in academe. For the first time in a significant way, our students develop a hypothesis or engage in creative activity and pursue it relentlessly. In doing so, they gain the confidence that they are able to ask meaningful questions, and when their projects are done, they have something to say or present that matters.

That confidence is what propels them as they venture out into their fields and careers, where they problem solve, lead, and succeed.

While undergraduate research in the sciences may reflect the greatest number of opportunities for participation with external agencies and grants, new avenues of research support in the humanities, arts, and social sciences are opening up. I was pleased to recently announce funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that is providing an intellectual and experiential bridge between Core 3 and the senior thesis for students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We have used the grant to successfully launch two programs: the research fellows program, in which students are mentored in the role of research assistants by faculty, and pre-thesis funding, which supports students as they pursue and engage in their research prior to the senior year.

I am proud of the curricular framework for research that the Scripps faculty has created. I am continually impressed by the quality and creativity of our students’ work and equally inspired by their commitment and spirit. Moreover, the faculty’s dedication, intellect, and hard work with our students serve as the foundation for their success. I hope you enjoy reading about some of the research happening at Scripps, by students, mentored by our remarkable faculty.