A new movement is sweeping across the University of San Francisco campus. Quietly, without fanfare, whole branches of study once off limits or with only limited access to undergraduate students are seeing their laboratories and databases thrown open to a younger generation. More than ever, USF undergraduates are tackling advanced subjects of research and leaving their marks in fields such as atomic laser spectroscopy, evolutionary game theory, and media studies—where the media industry’s contraction has shut doors to social change groups’ outreach attempts.
Haven’t heard of laser spectroscopy? A bit cloudy on game theory? You’re probably not alone. But, these and other research projects have been underway at USF for more than a year, some for many years. What’s more, students who have been involved in research collaborations are now pursuing advanced degrees at some of the nation’s top universities, including Yale University, the University of California, Berkeley, and New York University.
In the last five years, faculty have made inroads promoting undergraduate student research across a range of departments, often leading to regional and national conference presentations and articles coauthored by students and published in peer- reviewed journals, according to Brandon Brown, director of external affairs for the College of Arts and Sciences and a physics professor.
Combined with small class sizes and a high student to faculty ratio, expanded undergraduate research allows USF to offer a level of personalized education that can’t be duplicated at larger unuversities, where lecture hall-style classes with hundreds of students are the norm.
USF’s collaborative environment is a fundamental part of what sets the university apart, said Assistant Professor of physics Thomas Böttger, a perennial research mentor to undergraduate students. “Here, some undergraduates do research and work closely with professors, whereas at a bigger university it’s very cutthroat so professors usually don’t have much time for undergraduates,” Böttger said.
Gerardo Marín, USF vice provost of academic affairs, said undergraduate research on campus provides important mentoring and apprenticeship relationships between faculty and students, which has been shown to improve student engagement and learning. “The research experience for students and faculty is central as a way of fulfilling the search for the truth and for academic excellence,” Marín said.
While student-faculty research has occurred throughout USF’s history, no concerted effort was made across departments to encourage more, until recently. This time something is different, say students, faculty, and administrators who have witnessed a groundswell of new research grant requests in physics, mathematics, psychology, politics, media studies, and marketing, among others.
“On one hand, research expectations of faculty have been gradually increasing, meaning they need extra hands and minds in their projects,” Brown said. “And on the other hand, students see that the experience greatly enhances their résumés and their chances in graduate and professional programs.”
A Jesuit Tradition
If the expanding role of research at USF, with its pedigree in liberal arts education, is surprising, perhaps it shouldn’t be. After all, the pages of history are full of the names of renowned Jesuit scientists and researchers going back to the 16th century, from José de Acosta in anthropology, to Christian Mayer in astronomy, and Matteo Ricci in mathematics.
“Jesuits and Jesuit educational institutions, historically, have played a very important role in scientific and mathematical research, as well as in social science research,” said Marín. “At USF we continue to support those fields as a way to fulfill our mission and promote learning with high quality scholarship and academic rigor.”
Jennifer Turpin, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and a principal proponent of undergraduate research at USF, believes it’s all about giving USF students a competitive edge. “USF is distinct among Bay Area universities in its ability to give undergraduate students the opportunity to engage in research with world-class scholars in a variety of fields,” Turpin said. “At most universities, such opportunities are reserved for graduate students, but we’ve shown that undergraduates can learn to do top-notch research under the mentorship of our faculty.”
Physics major Daniel Merthe is a case study in what Turpin sees on the horizon for more USF undergraduates. His work on atomic rubidium using laser spectroscopy landed him at the Western Spectroscopy Association Conference in Monterey in January. He was the only undergraduate student among about 100 graduate, post-doctoral, and professional scientists from the West and Mid-west.
Most of his research time at USF is spent tuning lasers to analyze the energy transitions of elements at the atomic level, said Merthe, a senior who works for Böttger. One practical application for the research may be a more precise calculation of the very fabric of time.
“If the second could be redefined in terms of these much faster (rubidium) oscillations, then we would have a much more precise definition of our standard unit of time, the second,” Merthe said. It’s hardly surprising that Merthe won an internship at Sandia National Labs in Livermore last summer and has already been offered a job there when he graduates.
Merthe’s research, often accessible to students only at such prominent research universities as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is already being incorporated into an advanced lab for other USF students taught by Böttger.
On top of the obvious benefits of garnering prestige for USF and advanced experience for USF undergraduates, research provides students with a deeper set of analytical skills, appreciation for data collection, and an ability to solve problems, Böttger said.