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Fall seminar exposes prospective undergraduates from diverse backgrounds to research

  • Having a Blast:
    Having a Blast:  WMSURE's Autumn Blast Research workshop, designed to teach prospective undergraduates from multicultural backgrounds about research opportunities at W&M, took place Oct. 23.  Photo by Marisa Spyker
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When Nathanael Paige ’18 isn’t studying marketing for his major, he’s studying stereotyping and prejudice as a research assistant in Psychology Professor Cheryl Dickter’s Social Cognition Lab. But, Paige said, he might not have even considered the idea of working in the lab had he not attended a research-focused event for W&M Scholars on the Day for Admitted Students in 2014. 

“Before I came to William & Mary, I thought of research as something only the really high-achieving or the really smart kids could get involved in,” he said. “But after I attended that session, I started to realize that it’s actually not as far-fetched or unattainable as I imagined.”

On Oct. 23, Paige stood up in front of a diverse crowd of local high school juniors and seniors to share that same message he learned just a few years before. Paige was one of 10 undergraduates who participated in WMSURE’s Autumn Blast Research event at the Sadler Center. The workshop, now in its third year, is held once a semester and is designed to introduce students from underrepresented backgrounds to the various opportunities in research that are available to them. 

“For prospective undergraduates, research is our advantage at William & Mary,” said Anne Charity Hudley, the co-director of WMSURE (William & Mary Scholars Undergraduate Research Experience) and associate professor of education, English, linguistics and Africana studies. “We have the opportunities in research that other schools might not have, and that’s what this program is designed to teach them.”

The day-long workshop consisted of presentations by undergraduates and faculty members, a Q&A session open to prospective students and their parents, and opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours of research facilities in places like the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, Swem Library and the Integrated Science Center. 

In her introduction to a session on preparing for a research-filled college career, Charity Hudley encouraged high school participants to begin thinking about questions they might want to answer through research, to seek out volunteer opportunities related to their interests and to reach out to students and faculty involved in similar research to find out more.

“I want you to start questioning everything right now,” she said. “Is the information I learned in my science class the most valid science? Is this historical study complete? Think about what you’re studying in high school and that might lead to questions you can build a research idea off of.”

Several W&M students shared their own experiences with undergraduate research — both on and off campus — during the event. Danya AbdelHameid ’18 talked about the benefits of conducting summer research outside of W&M based on her experiences as a research assistant working at the University of Vermont and for the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, Colorado. 

“These experiences allow you to travel, see new places and make new friends from other universities,” said AbdelHameid. “But at the same time you’re also able to focus your time on conducting research that’s meaningful or interesting to you.” 

W&M faculty members, including Psychology Professor Catherine Forestell, Chemistry Professor Elizabeth Harbron and Government and Public Policy Professor Chris Howard, also provided insight on making contact with professors and getting involved with labs on campus during the school year. Forestell urged prospective students to look through faculty websites to see what interests them, and to reach out to professors early in their college career once they find a research opportunity they like. 

“In my lab you’ll start as part of a team,” said Forestell. “But often students stay year after year and eventually they might be running their own study. Then maybe at the end they’ll get their name on a published paper.”

An emphasis on early involvement in research, as Paige did and as countless W&M undergraduates do, was a sentiment shared throughout the workshop. In addition to tips on how to get involved early, Charity Hudley shared various research funding opportunities available from programs like WMSURE and the Sharpe Community Scholars Program for students starting in their first year of college.

“Our big push in WMSURE is just supporting our students every step of the way through this process,” Charity Hudley said.