​​​​​​​Connecting Through Research and the Residential Experience

Lunch discussions and fireside chats can lead students to research opportunities with faculty mentors. Residential college faculty fellows, as well as faculty across the university, hire students new to research and mentor them through the Undergraduate Research Assistance Program (URAP)

Promoting and funding faculty-student research initially began in Northwestern’s residential colleges nearly twenty years ago. The initiative introduced students to research practices through the work of faculty mentors who were also actively engaged in the life of their residential college. It gave students and faculty alike another framework for connecting outside the formal curriculum, which is central to the mission of the residential colleges. Over the years, members and fellows developed greater affinity for their residential college through the personal, intellectual relationships forged through mentored research.  

The success of those residential college research learning awards inspired the university-wide Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (URAP), which is managed by the Office of Undergraduate Research. The Office of Residential Academic Initiatives collaborates with that office to centrally promote faculty-student research, which fosters long-term mentorship and introduces students to research skills.

While all full-time faculty are eligible for URAP funding, special consideration is given to residential college fellow-student projects that will be enhanced by ties within the residential experience.

"The culture of residential colleges helps students meet and get to know faculty in meaningful ways as people beyond the classroom, then discover their research and join in," said Nancy Anderson, the Associate Director of Residential Academic Initiatives.

Gain research experience early

URAP offers students a chance to get their feet wet in the research process with a low pressure application, explained Chemistry Professor SonBinh Nguyen, a fellow at both the Residential College of Science & Engineering at Slivka Hall and the Residential College of Cultural & Community Studies at 2303 Sheridan Road. Designing an experiment and refining a research question based on new information is a unique process that doesn't really exist outside of research, Professor Nguyen explained.

"URAP is great for making the research process less mysterious to students," Professor Nguyen said. 

Medill Professor Candy Lee, who is an affiliated fellow with the Communications Residential College at East Fairchild, has worked with three URAP students to research how educational backgrounds impact approaches to leadership.

"URAP is great for students early in their career because faculty are crafting a project with students in mind," Lee said.

Pre-med student Henry Castellini worked on a cognitive psychology project in Professor David Rapp's lab his sophomore year. Castellini knew Professor Rapp from the Residential College of Cultural & Community Studies, where he served on the executive board and Rapp is a Faculty Chair. Rapp's lab studied reading comprehension to see whether participants fact-checked statements while reading. Castellini said he enjoyed how running experiments in the psychology lab complemented his biology and chemistry labs.

"You're always interacting with new participants, which feels different from working on things like cell incubation," Castellini said. 

Develop mentoring relationships

History and Economics major Michael Ryzhov pursued an undergraduate research assistantship for two consecutive summers with Professor Henry Binford (Shepard Residential College at South Mid-Quads) after taking two courses with him. Ryzhov worked on an urban history project, "Squalor in the Great Valley: Cincinnati 1820-1860," using microfilm, census records, STATA, and even making maps with GIS software -- some of which will likely be published. During his second summer as a research assistant, Ryzhov took on a more supervisory role, introducing new students to the software. 

Andrew Zu-Sern Wei, a student now at the Feinberg School of Medicine, still confers with Dr. Craig Langman, who was a fellow at Shepard when Wei was a freshman. Wei approached Dr. Langman after a fireside to learn more, and applied for the program in his next steps as a researcher. Dr. Langman is the head of the kidney diseases at Lurie Children's Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Feinberg. To assist Dr. Langman's research, Wei helped screen patients, write grants, sort data, and read the latest scientific literature. Wei said that learning how to read medical articles – something he does everyday as a medical student – was an important skill to learn early on. 

"Don't be afraid to ask your mentor for more connections," Wei advised.

After his freshman year, Wei studied kidney diseases on an Undergraduate Research Grant at a German lab with which Dr. Langman had a connection. In a few months, Wei will complete a rotation with Dr. Langman at Lurie Children's Hospital, an example of how these early college connections can endure. 

Presenting results

Cook Family Writing Program professors Penny Hirsch (Women’s Residential College at Hobart House) and Lisa Del Torto sought to investigate community at Northwestern, advertising their URAP opportunity at their residential college firesides. The cohort of students they mentored worked on surveys, response coding and even an interview with President Morty Schapiro. The group ultimately presented their paper, “Students’ Insights About Community on Campus: Definitions, Expectations and Perceptions at Northwestern University,” at the American Educational Research Association’s conference in Chicago. 

"Having the student perspective on our topic was really interesting," Professor Hirsch explained. "It was satisfying that I felt they learned a lot about qualitative research methods, and we enjoyed working with them in a small group."

Matthew Connor (Medill '16) worked with Medill Professor and Communications Residential College Fellow Jon Marshall on a paper that Professor Marshall presented to the American Journalism Historians Association. Through archival research and oral interviews, Marshall and Matt investigated the role the Black press played in the 1983 election of Harold Washington, Chicago's first Black mayor.

"As a faculty member, it was satisfying to have a sustained intellectual relationship with an undergrad outside of the classroom," Professor Marshall said. 

Interested in applying for a URAP?

  • Students: Summer URAP applications will open in Spring Quarter. 
  • Faculty: Submit an application by April 23.