The University of Toronto is often ranked among the best universities globally, and it is consistently ranked as one of the best research universities in Canada. We undergraduate students know these rankings are not in reference to research produced in U of T’s graduate programs. What few of us realize, however, is that U of T has many resources to support undergraduate student research, giving students a chance to apply and test their knowledge as well as prepare for further studies in graduate school.
For instance, the Undergraduate Research Fund, co-funded by the Arts & Science Students’ Union (ASSU) and the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS), finances self-started student research that is not part of regular coursework. There are a wide variety of research opportunities for second-, third-, and fourth-year students, including research opportunity programs and upper-year independent study options. Some other funding programs include the University of Toronto Excellence Awards, the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Richard Charles Lee Insights Through Asia Challenge, and the Jackman Humanities Institute’s Scholars-In-Residence program.
It is unfortunate that students may not have not heard about such opportunities. The FAS is unique in that it organizes its students through two main structures: the program departments and the colleges. Given this, all students registered as Arts & Science students have differential access to opportunities on campus. Hence, one of the major issues is a communication gap, wherein the faculty is unable to directly and effectively reach its students — approximately 25,000 of them.
The burden to remedy this communication gap should be shared between the university and ASSU. The Arts & Science Undergraduate Research Conference (ASURC), taking place on Friday, January 19 in Sidney Smith Hall at UTSG, is the first conference at the faculty level to showcase the interdisciplinary work of undergraduate students from arts, science, and social science disciplines. I decided to take on this event as a way to test for interest in such opportunities and to gauge how much undergraduate research work is actually out there — a mini research project of my own, you could say.
What I have found is that there is a lot of undergraduate research being conducted at U of T. However, if the current opportunities are better communicated to students, then more students would take advantage of them, resulting in more undergraduate research being produced. Since we began planning ASURC in the summer of 2017, we have had hundreds of students express interest in participating in the conference in difference capacities. In total, we received over 120 research abstracts from arts, science, and social science disciplines. Given the sheer volume of interest we have received, we know that there is a need for opportunities showcasing academic student work.
The university recognizes this and has been very supportive in the production of ASURC. The FAS has served as a main co-sponsor, and President Meric Gertler and Dean of the FAS David Cameron are both delivering welcome notes to the conference’s presenters. At the same time, while the university administration has provided great symbolic and financial support, it often falls on students to self-start and dedicate time to the actual organization of projects. A variety of student-produced academic journals, colloquiums, and conferences inspired us when we were organizing ASURC, many of which were produced by ASSU course unions.
The issue with student-run initiatives is that, with changes in the executive committees of each group happening each year, the possibility of an initiative being discontinued is always a concern. Many of my fellow student leaders on campus share this fear. Despite the precedent set by all our work organizing the first ASURC, I have no formal assurance that next year’s ASSU executives will continue such a long and logistically challenging process.
On the other hand, colleges and faculties have a more continuous presence on campus, creating the potential for long-term improvement of research initiatives. Therefore, I believe the solution lies in campus administrations playing a more active role in filling the communication gap and providing more formal opportunities to showcase student work. While administrations like those of Trinity College, St. Michael’s College, and Victoria College do hold their own undergraduate conferences, they limit participation to their own students, rendering other Arts & Science students at a disadvantage simply due to their college affiliation. In comparison, the University of British Columbia and McGill University both have conferences dedicated to undergraduate research at a far broader level.
From organizing ASURC, I have come to realize the key to undergraduate research. Many times, all it takes is incentive for students to build on and rework their research from their regular FAS courses. Because our academic work is primarily submitted for grading purposes, repurposing it to contribute to research is something we do not usually consider. Funding incentives and showcasing opportunities such as the ones outlined above are incentives to getting students to work out their ideas and engage with their immediate academic communities.
This was the goal of ASURC. In processing over 120 applications, our selection committees prioritized student presenters who had not been published nor had had a chance to present at a conference before. We prioritized topics of study that were interdisciplinary and unique. Research opportunities should not be restricted to graduate students or to the few elite undergraduate students who have been fortunate to have access to them. They should be made available to students interested in developing their ideas beyond the classroom.
Priyanka Sharma is a fourth-year student at Trinity College studying Criminology and English. She is the President of the Arts & Science Students’ Union.