Undergraduate Research at Dartmouth

The College on the Hill (Photograph courtesy of College Matchmaker)

The College on the Hill (Photograph courtesy of College Matchmaker)

When in college, research opportunities are seemingly everywhere, and at Dartmouth, opportunities abound, even for young undergraduates who have not yet completed a major course of study. Research can be done on any topic, from theater to government to chemistry. The only requirements for doing research at Dartmouth is that it must somehow contribute to one’s academic or intellectual development, and that a faculty member affiliated with the college is willing to assist or supervise the project. Students doing research must also be enrolled in the college, either on a registered term taking classes or on a leave term away from the school. Independent research opportunities are seemingly available to nearly any willing and motivated undergraduate student, and that’s exactly how it should be at an Ivy League institution with an endowment valued at over $4 billion.

There are many different research scholarships and foundations available to students interested in research. The Sophomore and Junior Research Scholars is open to any sophomore or junior looking to help faculty with their research. Students on this scholarship usually work between seven to twelve hours a week and receive an $850 stipend at the end of the term. The James O. Freedman Presidential Scholars Program was founded in 1988 and now allows juniors to work with Dartmouth faculty as research assistants. Projects for the program are meant to prepare students to complete senior honors theses. This scholar program is available only to juniors who are in the top 40% of their class based upon their GPA. Leave term grants, with up to $4,800 available for sophomores and juniors for full-time leave term research, are another option, particularly for students who have a major role in the project. Honors Thesis grants, with funds up to $2,500 available for students needing money for their thesis project, are an option for seniors who want to do some research for their final projects. Senior Fellowships involve projects where the college deems that the knowledge, imagination, and work involved goes beyond what can be expected from students who are also enrolled and taking classes. Senior fellows must have a faculty advisor to support their project and must submit budget plans to the college to be approved. However, once approved, they are not required to take courses or complete a major requirement during their senior year. Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships strives to combat the underrepresentation of minority faculty at the university level. MMUF supports underrepresented-minority students, striving for a PhD, and attempts to assist students who expect to go on to professional careers by providing research funds for them. If a student plans to present research they have done at an academic conference, they can even apply for separate funding from the college. There are also programs affiliated with the Undergraduate Research office. These include the Women in Science Project, which intends to help women in STEM fields do research, and the E.E. Just Program, which supports the research of students traditionally underrepresented in the STEM fields. There is also a Health Professions Program, which seeks to prepare students in the pre-health field with initial explorations in their field of study. Myriad options exist for students pursuing undergraduate research from scholarships to programs to grants; if students have the will, they can receive research funding from numerous sources. 

The hub for Undergraduate Research on campus is the Parker House. Each year, approximately 600-700 students participate in research programs and apply for funding through the Parker House. Hundreds more students undertake research projects by coordinating directly with faculty, bypassing the Parker House, since many professors are happy to use their grant money to pay students. Fortunately, Dartmouth Alumni recognize the value of providing students with one-on-one learning situations and are thus very financially supportive of undergraduate research. Because of the extensive giving in recent years, the Parker House is usually able to fund any research project that a student requests, assuming he or she has planned the project thoroughly and has found a faculty advisor.

Why do so many opportunities for undergraduate research exist at Dartmouth? Simply put, the research experience provides an entirely different learning environment than that of the classroom. In most college classes, the professor possesses a comprehensive understanding of the content and the students are tasked with absorbing the content themselves. On the other hand, in the research environment, neither the professor nor the student has the answers; both parties must work together to discover them. Professors recognize that the limited amounts of knowledge that students possess often removes constraints on their thought processes; students see the world in a unique manner and, in this way, ignorance can actually be very helpful.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the sciences offer the most opportunities for research at Dartmouth. Indeed, the Geisel School of Medicine offers the most undergraduate research programs by far. Fields ranging from biology, chemistry, and physiology to anthropology and sociology offer significant opportunities for undergraduate research. The Thayer School of Engineering takes second place, and the Computer Science department comes in a close third. When we remove the STEM-exclusive programs from our analysis, taking into account only Presidential Research projects, grants, and the Junior Research Scholars program, Geisel still leads, but the Economics department, the Government department, and the History department all come up to par with Thayer and the Computer Science department. These rankings, of course, are heavily influenced by the size and popularity of each department. No sort of research-opportunity-per-capita study at Dartmouth has been conducted recently, but the Parker House is currently working towards organizing one.

A few fellow Dartmouth undergraduates were willing to share their research experiences with us. Oren Wilcox ‘17 is fascinated by the fact that, while the brain is such a fundamental part of the human experience, we know so little about it. He decided to dive into Neuroscience, and he began his first research project as early as the summer after his freshman year. Since then, he has worked in four different labs and is now currently a part of Professor Kyle Smith’s lab at Dartmouth.

Wilcox says that acquiring his current research position was not difficult; indeed, he met with the chair of the Neuroscience Department about seeking a thesis, and the chair directed him to Professor Kyle Smith. Given that Wilcox had already completed a wealth of science classes and possessed substantial research experience, Professor Smith welcomed him with open arms.

Wilcox’s work revolves around studying the formation of habits in animals, specifically by investigating an area of the brain called the striatum. The striatum has many functions, one of which is working as the habit center of the brain. Another area of the brain, which is responsible for dopamine production, called the Substantia Nigra may help affect activity in the striatum during habit development. In order to study how animals’ habit behavior changes, he utilizes a technique known as DREADDs to activate projections from the Substantia Nigra to the striatum in tandem with a lever pressing program. The rat is placed in an operant conditioning box which contains a lever. In some experiments, the rat receives a food pellet each time it presses lever, in others, every three times, and, in a third possibility, the rat receives a pellet about every minute regardless of any lever interaction. The boxes are programmed to send data to the lab’s computers for further analysis.

Wilcox currently spends approximately ten hours each week working in the lab itself in addition to many more hours writing his thesis. As a result from his extensive research career, Wilcox has learned how to more efficiently multi-task, his work ethic has improved, and he has refined his technical lab skills.

Kush Desai ‘17 applied to the James O. Freedman Research Scholar program during his sophomore year due to his interest consumer marketing and its affect on social norms, as well as the generous pay that the program offered. He stayed on the research project for his sophomore summer and worked with Professor Douglas Haynes in the History department, looking at advertising for health and hygiene products. He worked industriously, about 8-10 hours a week and claims, “it gave him a deeper insight into the process of finding historical facts and trends that are often taken for granted in books.” To do his research, Kush studied old English-Indian daily newspapers from 1900-1950 to get a sense of how consumer goods companies marketed their products and how they promoted certain western notions of modernity in India. He studied how these ads, in turn, affected the general feeling of what a proper man or woman should wear to be socially acceptable. In a sense, he studied the effects of pre-television advertising on body image and accepted social norms, something he might not have had the opportunity to study otherwise.

Will Tremml ‘18 has already completed the Physics major and is now working towards a double major in Engineering Sciences. He reports that researching in Physics opens the door to an eclectic array of topics, while researching in Engineering is often more restrictive and usually also requires several topic-specific classes as prerequisites. He spends between two to fifteen hours each week on research, depending on how occupied he is with his classes and other commitments.

Tremml began his research with Physics Professor Kristina Lynch during the winter of his sophomore year, driven by his fascination of quantifying the universe through Physics, the allure of earning money through an academic pursuit, and the necessity to possess research experience when applying to graduate school. Professor Lynch and her team construct rockets that soar through the Aurora Borealis above Alaska to take data on the electrostatics of the aurora. Tremml focuses his efforts on interpreting sensor data taken by rockets to match the Aurora, which can observed with the naked eye. To aid him in his pursuits, Tremml models the rocket sensors flying through the aurora with experiments that can be performed here in Hanover. In one of his experiments, for example, he picks up a magnet and moves it over several magnetic sensors in a jagged path. Just as the sensors on the rocket serve to map the electromagnetic interactions of the Aurora Borealis, Tremml attempts to recreate the path of the magnet using only the data gathered by the magnetic sensors.

Tremml views his research as quite the academically formative experience. Indeed, he affirms that there remain myriad unsolved problems in the sciences, and the “only difference between you and a Nobel Prize winner is how much time you put in and a lot of luck.”

Copious opportunities for students to do research at Dartmouth exist, regardless of the field. The college provides excellent support for students who wish to do research, with willing faculty and enormous funds seemingly at every student’s fingertips. From Parker House to the James O. Freedman Presidential Scholars Program, there are numerous way that Dartmouth students can get involved with research. From history to physics, every research project is unique, but all projects enhance a student’s education, which is the main focus of any course of study at Dartmouth College. Undergraduate research is a great way for students to get hands on experience in their area of study, and at Dartmouth, the possibilities for such research are endless.