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Fostering the Future of Undergraduate Research

A visit with Ted Tarkow, Professor of Classical Studies & Associate Dean of Arts & Science

By LuAnne Roth
Published: - Topics: undergraduate research pre-professional education mentorship
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Ted Tarkow, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Science and director of the Undergraduate Research Mentorship Program, talks lovingly of the hundreds of students he has watched blossom into successful researchers throughout the history of the twelve-year-old program, and he reminisces about how it all began: “A group of us had thought for quite some time that anything we could do for bright and talented undergraduates to show the interconnection between research and teaching would enrich their undergraduate program of study. We thought also that by taking highly productive faculty and having them be mentors of really bright students, their own research agendas would be enhanced.” That was the goal. It was a win-win proposition. And the results have been dramatic.

The program has just completed its thirteenth year, with close to 500 students benefiting from such intensive one-on-one interaction with faculty mentors. With all fields of MU’s College of Arts and Science represented, this is a truly multidisciplinary program. Within this summer’s group alone there was a colorful crew of budding historians, classicists, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, economists, physicists, chemists, and biologists.

Part of what makes the program so successful in enhancing pre-professional education is that it is demanding. From the application process to planning methodology and on to actual participation, the student fellows are held to high expectations, and at the end of their term all participants must submit copies of their final projects. At this year’s summer luncheon, where each fellow presented a five-minute synopsis of her or his work, I talked with a number of students who eagerly told me about their projects. Their maturity, enthusiasm, articulateness, and knowledge of their disciplinary calling were impressive. And although I had not met any of them before, my heart swelled with pride in their accomplishments. In fact, I can’t imagine the pride that the parents sitting in that room must have felt as their daughters and sons stood center-stage, describing their research to the crowd of guests, and reveling in (or shyly enduring) the attention showered on them.

Gaining pre-professional skills, however, does not come without a price, and there is often a bittersweet taste to research. Many students become painfully aware of how frustrating (and sometimes lonely) research can be -- working long hours alone in the library or lab, testing initial hypotheses, revising initial approaches, even seeing initial hypotheses destroyed by their own findings. “They get to experience both the joy and the frustration of generating new knowledge,” explains Tarkow, and that is one of the hardest and yet most important things students can learn from this experience.

Not surprisingly, Tarkow can readily recount a host of inspirational stories of MU graduates who have blossomed from the URM program: “It’s not surprising, as we start reviewing more longitudinal data of what some of these people have done in their post-MU years, that we learn how seminal this experience has been to their graduate or professional work…. Very often we learn that this project has been become an oral presentation at a national or international conference, a publication, or the basis for an application to graduate or professional school.” Given all of this success, it’s not surprising when we find that so many graduates of this program -- those who have learned “to benefit from the premise that good research, good creativity, and good teaching go hand in glove” -- become the leading researchers of their day.