by Yu Bai
This October, Mason was awarded the 2015 Campus-wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishment sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research.
The award is given annually to higher-education institutions that provide high quality research opportunities for undergraduate students.
Out of this year’s 50 competitors, Mason was one of three selected to receive the award. Allegheny College and The College of New Jersey were also recipients.
Over the past three years, over 2,700 students have engaged in research projects at Mason.
“Mason has one of the best undergraduate research programs in the country, and we offer an amazing array of opportunities to students,” said Dr. Bethany Usher, director of Mason’s Students as Scholars initiative. “We are committed to access and diversity.”
Every year, Mason students are exposed to research experience through the university’s research and scholarship intensive (RS) courses. There are currently 46 RS courses offered at Mason that cover a wide range of fields including accounting, math, communication and music.
Rather than — and often in addition to — taking RS courses, many students work on individual projects. The Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR) offers help to students who have research ideas or interests.
One of OSCAR’s main responsibilities is to connect students with mentors who can advise them on individual projects. OSCAR also funds undergraduate programs and creative projects through the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program (URSP) and OSCAR federal work study assistantships.
“We have students and faculty from every major on campus participating in some ways — from dance choreography to flockbots [robots that move in flocks], to finding black holes, to writing novels,” Usher said.
Rahib Zaman is a senior bioengineering major who participated in URSP this year. Zaman worked in Mason’s photoacoustics laboratory this past summer to develop an all-optical ultrasound transducer.
Zaman said he designed this project to enable health care professionals to take quick, high-resolution 3D images of locations deep within the body. He came up with the idea for the new transducer with the help of Dr. Parag Chitnis, a professor of bioengineering who came to Mason in 2014. Zaman said this project has been the perfect opportunity to learn more about medical imaging while fully immersing himself in the research experience.
Ashley Frongello, a senior psychology major, got involved with URSP last winter.
“In my psychology honors class, my now-mentor, Dr. Doris Davis, gave a presentation on a study in which a Border Collie was trained to identify 1,022 different toys by name,” Frongello recalled.
That summer, Frongello had the opportunity to work with Davis, who had been looking for a student with whom to replicate the study. Frongello’s research concentrated on the domestication hypothesis, which posits that dogs’ ability to exhibit certain human behaviors, including some features of human language, could be attributed to social communicative exposure to humans.
Frongello has been able to use this research for her honors thesis as well.
“OSCAR afforded me the opportunity to actually collect my own data, which I really wanted to do, rather than steal data from someone else’s prior research,” Frongello said.
Iris Stone, a junior studying physics, has also benefitted from OSCAR. Stone’s journey began when Dr. Patrick Vora, an assistant professor in Mason’s physics and astronomy departments, invited her to assist him in constructing a physics lab in what was then just an empty classroom. After months of work, Stone and Vora finished creating the lab, which Stone eventually used to complete research in solid-state physics.
“Over the past year, I have focused primarily on characterizing the properties of charge transfer crystals, which are two-component organic materials that hold great potential for applications in low-cost flexible electronics, including OLEDs and photovoltaic devices,” Stone said.
At many universities, students in engineering and science receive significantly more funding than do students in the liberal arts. Mason has a different approach. “We don’t want that [unequal funding] to be true,” Usher explained.
In order to achieve a greater balance in funding, OSCAR evaluates projects from every subject and offers the same amount of funding to each participant. Students receive $1,000 for conducting projects during the academic year and $4,000 for research done over the summer.
“I believe OSCAR provided me with the resources and funds to do my research and allowed me to be independent and learn the skills and material I wanted to learn,” said Zaman who got $4,000 for the nine weeks he worked.
Elizabeth Ambos serves as the executive officer for the Council on Undergraduate Research. Her explanation as to why Mason was selected for this year’s award: its emphasis on and numerous opportunities for research. Amos said that by highlighting research as a core part of Mason’s educational experience and by giving students plenty of opportunities to start projects, Mason has enabled students to incorporate research into their studies.
“From pioneering virologists to prize-winning economists, students work alongside researchers at the top of their game,” Ambos said.
Now, Usher and her team will continue to increase opportunities for students. Currently they are working on enabling students to take part in research outside of the university.