College of Science programs find opportunities in laboratories for undergrads

Author: Gene Stowe

Undergraduate research

Undergraduate research, a longstanding natural element of a College of Science education at the University of Notre Dame, has accelerated in recent years with an increased commitment to make such opportunities available in a systematic way.

New and expanded programs, both during the academic year and during the summer, are bringing more students into research, with the goal that any science student who wants them can have access to research opportunities.

The University of Notre Dame Environmental Research Center (UNDERC), which straddles the state line between Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in Vilas County, Wis., and Gogebic County, Mich., has long offered research opportunities for undergraduates, says Dominic Chaloner, who came to Notre Dame in 2000 and was appointed coordinator of undergraduate research in the College of Science in 2007.

Students have always been able to do research for academic credit, he says.

“The question was providing opportunities over and above that.”

In his 2005 inaugural address, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., Notre Dame’s president, signaled a strong University commitment to undergraduate research.

“(Father Jenkins) wanted the institution as a whole to be encouraging students to be doing scholarly engagement beyond just going to lectures,” Chaloner said. “At that point, I think it became more widely accepted that we had to do more than we were already doing.”

Chaloner’s strategy involves three components: providing information about opportunities; engaging students in opportunities, such as courses in which research is a central component; and supporting research with, for example, travel grants and fellowships.

Specific programs that provide summer opportunities include:

  • Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships that started with a handful of students a few years ago and supported some 45 this year. “This summer, the program blossomed,” said Marissa Runkle, marketing communications specialist for the College of Science. “They were funded by a number of sources,” including Clare Boothe Luce and Balfour programs and the Indiana University School of Medicine.
  • The Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU), a longstanding program supported by the National Science Foundation. The summer program brings students from other schools to campus, but some Notre Dame undergraduates can participate here as well as going to other laboratories.

REU in biological sciences is the successor to a program started in 1993 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and organized by Michelle Whaley of biological sciences, who teaches research-based genetics and cell biology courses.

The departments of chemistry and biochemistry, physics and mathematics also offer REU programs:

  • An alumni mentoring program organized by Whaley that connects undergraduates with alumni for research. Four students participated in the first such this year.
  • Other research opportunities that Chaloner, Whaley and Laura Flynn of the Career Center help students identify. Four of Whaley’s cell biology students this year continued their spring semester research during the summer.

“It’s a challenge to find opportunities, but we have a lot of ways we can work with students,” says Flynn, who networks with university medical centers, pharmaceutical and medical device companies, among others, and shows students how to look for research opportunities.

Chaloner says the variety of options is important for increasing undergraduate research.

“I think what we’re going to get to is a multitude of different ways of providing opportunities,” he says. “The research is appropriate to the student’s career aspirations. A medical school isn’t going to look for the same level of depth of undergraduate research,” as, say, a doctoral program. “Undergraduate research cannot be a monolithic thing—research is not one thing,” he says.

“A Notre Dame student has a diverse experience. We want research to be a common part of that experience.”

Contact: Marissa Runkle, College of Science, 574-631-4465,