While many undergraduate students are interested in participating in research, not everyone knows how. The goal of this article is to offer students some strategies to establish relationships with professors through personal stories. I talked to Jo Scofield, Darina Vekhova, and contacted UBC alumni Tatum Fraser about their participation in undergraduate research. Part I of this article will contain Scofield and Fraser’s interviews, while Part II will share Vekhova’s story.

Interview with Jo Scofield

Undergraduate student with a major in Anthropology

Graduating in April 2020

What research have you participated in?

I went to El Salvador. I was lucky enough to work with reproductive justice advocates there and talk about how international groups can better support their work.

Could you tell the story of how you approached the professor who supervised your research?

There was a speaker that came to the university, almost two years ago now, [named] Bertha Maria de Leon. She spoke about the problems that they're working on in El Salvador. I thought it was really interesting, so I did a directed study involving the history of issues in El Salvador and looking at abortion law. When I was doing that, I realized almost all of these recommendations I was reading were written by international groups, or people from Canada, the US, or Europe.

There was hardly anything that was written about what the local activists who actually live there thought people should be doing. I wanted to fix that as I have the privilege to be studying at a university and have access to funding. I was able to go there and talk to the activists who work on reproductive health issues in San Salvador, El Salvador. This is really just so that there's something written, research-based, and people have something they can consult. Being here [at UBC Okanagan], I have the privilege of researching and potentially getting [my work] published to raise awareness… it can be much harder for people outside of a university. The results will also be made available open source and provided to the community.

I was actually trying to find somebody to do this project with for about a year. Most of the professors I emailed I never had a class with. I ended up talking to probably around twenty different professors, trying to find somebody whose research area would fit. They would tell me that, “it doesn't fit with my research, but you could try _____”, and the next person would say the same thing. I ended up finding my supervisor in the fall of last year.

What advice would you give students who are interested in research?

Find something that you really love to work on because if you're passionate about it, you will be fine spending your entire summer or your entire master’s degree doing it… because you're working on one topic, day in and day out. So, I think it really helps if you love it, or if you're passionate about it.

How long did it take you to prepare the application?

I would say start preparing way before the application deadline because the application is a lot of work…. you're [creating] a lot of the structure for your projects, especially in anthropology [since] you're doing ethics applications and things like that. So, it was definitely a good four or five months of work.

Interview with Tatum Fraser

BA Cultural Studies with a minor in Anthropology

Graduated in Spring 2019

Currently completing a MA in Sociology at the University of Lethbridge

What research have you participated in?

I was lucky enough to be awarded the FCCS Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA). My research took place during the summer after my third year (2018). USRA’s are a fantastic opportunity for undergraduate students to participate in meaningful individualized research. Not only does this award look great on a CV but it also provides practical research skills that are not typically taught in classes.

Could you tell the story of how you approached the professor who supervised your research?

Everyone’s experience during the URA is a bit different. I was very passionate about my research topic going into the application and was fortunate enough to have a supervisor who was supportive. I approached many different professors before teaming up with George Grinnell in the English department. I had taken about 4 classes with Dr. Grinnell prior to the application so he was familiar with my writing, interests, background etc.

I know many students struggled to lock down a supervisor and believe me, I did too. It is important to remember professors have prioritized their own research during the summer and sometimes supervising a USRA is not in the cards for them. I would recommend approaching professors who you know have similar research interests to you, that way they will be more inclined to supervise you. If you are still struggling to connect with a professor, research the mission statement of various departments on campus and see if your research would fit in better with another faculty.

What advice would you give to students who want to be involved in research but do not know how to start?

Look up professors’ research and see if anything they’re doing interests you. From there you can individualize a topic that you know is a topic supported by faculty. Additionally, look for research assistant (RA) positions on campus if a USRA isn’t for you. RA’s are harder to come by in the arts, but it can be a great stepping stone to decide if research is for you.

Furthermore, make sure you actively forge relationships with your professors. The more eager and engaged in research you seem, the more willing they will be to help you succeed. Even if research is not your thing, I will always recommend getting close with your professors. You never know when you’ll need a reference.