Challenges and Victories in Undergraduate Research Funding

The “do-it-yourself” lava flow project received $500.00 from the Undergraduate Research Program. The proposal writing process was a learning experience in and of itself.  Scheduling meeting times to talk about the project was the hardest challenge of all. We ended up emailing multiple drafts of the proposal back and forth. In the end, the proposal and all the required documents were submitted by the deadline and it was a successful proposal.

The students were very excited to receive the go-ahead to get started with the project.  However, the realities of getting the project off the ground on a shoestring budget hit almost immediately. The shipping cost for one of the materials we needed to purchase was far more than the amount we budgeted for it. We are still shopping around for a suitable heat source within our means. We cannot start the project until we can build a furnace.  Gathering the required parts together has mostly been a slow process so far.

We also received a sobering email from one of the principal investigators of the Syracuse Lava Project about the cost and size of the furnace necessary if we want to really explore the various aspects of lava flow without artificial boundary effects being imposed by experimental conditions. We will have to scale back our initial expectations according to the size of the furnace. We will see how much we can achieve with the available resources.

Another challenge is a lack of available published materials on the types of research we would like to conduct. While this underscores the pioneering spirit of the project, it also leaves us somewhat floundering around trying to figure out the best practices on-the-go.  It stretches our creativity and forces us to think outside of the box, but when we have to operate within a fixed budget, there are scarce opportunities to make mistakes.

The deadline for submitting an abstract for the 2013 National Conference of Undergraduate Research (NCUR) came around within weeks of receiving funding for the project. It was hard for the students to come up with anticipated results for such an exploratory project. One of the internal reviewers even commented on our lack of preliminary data for the abstract. It was frustrating to be compared with other research groups that had been working on their projects for a semester or more.

I was afraid that the students might lose their excitement after being faced with so many small but significant challenges. Thankfully, my fears have been groundless so far. They are still excited about the project despite the slow process of getting everything together while balancing every other demand on their time that comes with the end of a semester.  This positive attitude seems largely due to the fact that the students designed this project themselves, instead of participating in a research project designed by faculty. I hope their positive attitude lasts through the project. Sometimes that is the only thing that spells the difference between success and failure of a research project.

In the coming months we hope to gather all the parts for building the furnace. We can only move ahead with the business of melting rocks once that is done.  Exciting times ahead!

Dr. Prajukti Bhattacharyya is an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Geology at University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. She teaches introductory and upper-level geology courses for both majors and non-majors. Her undergraduate research activities span a wide variety of topics, not necessarily always related to her primary field of expertise. Her blog will address the benefits, challenges, and deliverable outcomes of designing meaningful multidisciplinary research projects in collaboration with undergraduate students.

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