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Student Undergraduate Research Fund underutilized

Photo by: Antonio Reyes | Staff Photographer
The Ingram School of Engineering continues to do research in the labs of Roy F. Mitte.

Since its beginning in 2011, the Student Undergraduate Research Fund has been used by students to do everything from staging original theatrical productions to researching whether acorn oil could be used as a commercial product.

However, despite the diversity of its possible applications, the S.U.R.F. money is not being utilized to its full potential, as applicants for the 30-40 grants offered by the program have been sparse this year.

“Thus far, we’ve only given out 14 grants for the 2015-2016 academic year,” said Heather Galloway, dean of the Honors College. “The last deadline to apply is April 25. There’s still money available.”

The apparent lack of awareness of the program among the student body has resulted in an absence of variation in student applications.

“We receive lots of applications from a narrow range of departments, such as engineering, physical science, biology, etc.,” said Mike Blanda, assistant vice president for Research & Federal Relations.

Blanda said officials want those majors to apply for money from the fund, but also want to see an increase of applications from art, business administration, agriculture students and any other major.

“S.U.R.F. is open to all disciplines, so we would like to see a well-rounded representation of everything the university has to offer,” Blanda said.

Some university officials have speculated the lack of awareness of the program in the student body could be attributed to the unexpected death of John Hood, who played an integral role in launching the program.

“He was a true champion of the program, and his passing is part of the reason why I believe general awareness of the program is not as high as it should be,” Blanda said. “I had an idea for an undergrad research program for years, but it was John who helped the Honors College launch it and make it a reality.”

Hood was instrumental in organizing the S.U.R.F. program in its infancy. His interest in the program began when he was employed as the undergraduate research coordinator for the Honors College, Galloway said.

The S.U.R.F. program began with a grant Hood and Galloway submitted to an outside private foundation called Mind Science, which showed an interest in cognitive and neurological aspects of research.

By now, the program has grown to include financial support from the Provost’s Office, which supports worthy projects from all disciplines, as well as from the Office for Research and Federal Relations.

Other contributions come from sources including the 3-M Foundation, which has made an additional donation for a small endowment of $25,000 to help fund student research, Galloway said.

Additionally, the individual colleges all contribute funding, though theirs is restricted to students from their college.

“Currently, the funding rate for proposals is relatively high because the submission rate is low,” Blanda said.

He said the S.U.R.F. program has the potential to add great value to a student’s educational experience at Texas State.

“It offers opportunities to work in a team setting and mentor situation, gives students the chance to work on relevant projects and problems specific to their majors, and gives firsthand experience in what it takes to conduct funded research,” Blanda said.

Although S.U.R.F. proposals are submitted to and processed by the Honors College, students are not required to belong to the college in order to receive funding.

“It’s simply for those who need a way to pay expenses related to their research,” Galloway said.

According to the limitations of the S.U.R.F. fund, travel to conduct research is covered. However, travel to conferences in order to present any findings is not.

One former student used the money to partially fund a research trip to Iceland. Another used it to fly to Romania in order to study post-Communist redevelopment.

“If you look at which departments are represented by the current grants, they’re very science-heavy,” Galloway said. “One of the things we’d like to see is a broad range of students from a wide variety of disciplines engaging in research and applying for these grants.”

Although each grant is limited to a $1,000 maximum, the money can be used to do almost anything.

For instance, if a student uses the grant to buy equipment they may need for their research, the equipment belongs to the school after the end of the student’s research. After the research is completed, the equipment can be used at the convenience of other students who may need to conduct similar research in the future.

Even so, the lack of student awareness regarding S.U.R.F. has prompted faculty and administration to re-strategize and invent new ways of publicizing the program.

“There are number of things that we can do to increase participation,” said Ron Haas, a history professor involved in the Honors College. “We need to work on fostering a community of involvement—research is a social practice; it’s more than just sitting alone at a desk. We need centralized ways to inform students of the opportunities available to them.”

Poster campaigns have been used in the past, Galloway said, but none have been launched this year. Blanda proposed S.U.R.F. should be discussed during orientation so students will be aware of the program from the moment they enroll.

“It’s this incredible mechanism for undergrads to participate in a research enterprise,” Blanda said. “This culture of discovery and learning we’re nurturing here at Texas State should cover all aspects of the academy.”