Making knowledge count

Basic research is at the heart of the mission of universities. Through strong basic research, universities create new knowledge for the benefit of Canadians and prepare the next generation of highly qualified people. Basic research transfers knowledge that contributes to wealth creation, and social and cultural policies. It enhances our quality of life. Research and teaching are intrinsically linked and active research underpins some of the best university teaching – both undergraduate and graduate. Often these two functions are viewed as separate and distinct activities. For example, many undergraduate students don’t realize that their professors, in addition to teaching their classes, are also engaged in the creation of new knowledge through groundbreaking research.

In recent years, though, York students – many of them undergrads – have become increasingly involved in research with their professors. Just ask Waqas Ahmed, a York kinesiology student, who has already worked with researchers at York University, the University of Toronto and Princess Margaret Hospital – despite the fact that he is only in his second year of study. Responding to a posted flyer looking for research assistants, Ahmed began working at the Pencer Brain Tumour Clinic at Princess Margaret Hospital, and was surprised to discover how much learning can be done outside of the lecture hall.

“Many undergrads are so involved in their studies that they don’t realize there’s another world at the university,” says Ahmed. To help rectify this problem, Ahmed is developing ideas that will get more undergrads involved in research, and also make people more aware of York’s strengths as a research university.

Ahmed’s achievements are not unique at York. The University has long sought to better integrate teaching and research and ensure their inseparability. Many York faculty members, such as Professor Doug Crawford, rely heavily on the work of undergraduate research assistants.

Right: Doug Crawford

In fact, Crawford’s vision lab, which hires several undergrads every summer, often offers work to students who have just completed their first year – with great results. Many of these students continue on in vision research, undertaking fourth year theses (in the form of small projects) and receiving summer student funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) .

“It’s a perfect partnership,” says Crawford, the recipient of a York Graduate Studies’ Teaching Award as well as the prestigious 2004 Steacie Prize in the Natural Sciences. “The students need the experience, and we need the help.” To highlight the success of this arrangement, Crawford notes that his very first undergraduate research assistant is currently finishing off a PhD in vision research at McMaster University. He also emphasizes the intrinsic link between teaching and research.

“Training graduates, undergraduates and senior research fellows is my vehicle for getting research done,” says Crawford. “Teaching and research are inseparable, and every project in my lab belongs to a student.”

Like Crawford, York Professor Bernie Lightman, editor of ISIS – the world’s preeminent journal on the history of science – also emphasizes the importance of involving students in research.

Left: Bernie Lightman

ISIS wouldn’t be able to survive without the help of students,” observes Lightman, who brought the renowned journal to York in 2001. One of these students, Shannon Caulfield, began working at ISIS as an undergraduate, assisting the book review editor with the large task of addressing publications in a very diverse field. Now completing her MA in humanities at York, Caulfield cites her work with ISIS as a driving force in getting her interested in research.

ISIS helped introduce me to the other side of academia, the side outside of the classroom,” says Caulfield. “It enabled me to interact with some of the top scholars in the world, and exposed me to the latest articles and books and the most cutting edge research.”

But many York professors, who don’t have labs or don’t edit journals, have nevertheless found great ways of involving the students they teach in research. For example, geography Professor Steven Flusty, who studies the material landscapes of global cities, assigned second-year undergrads to explore Toronto, and has often cited their findings in his papers.

Anthropology Professor Daphne Winland’s third-year methodology course requires her students to develop a project that involves researching some aspect of a local community, such as a particular neighborhood, club or association.

Left: Daphne Winland

Winland’s students have the opportunity to hone a variety of people skills at the same time that they learn, firsthand, the complex ethical issues involved in researching a community of people. Winland also hires former students of hers as research assistants to help conduct her own research on Croats in both Canada and Croatia. In the process, her research assistants develop highly marketable skills in areas like interviewing, archival and computer work.

“These projects have not only introduced students to research in a very hands-on way,” says Winland, “but they have also helped former students of mine who have gone on to non-research careers – careers like public relations and social work.”

Stressing the importance and need, Winland adds, “These projects don’t just give students the skills necessary to research some exotic community. Rather, the research helps students become more conscious of the complexity of their own societies. Research is not simply about libraries and books and labs. It’s about interacting with the real-world and making knowledge count.”

Professor Suzanne MacDonald, York’s associate vice-president research agrees, adding that undergraduates that get involved in research often develop skills employable outside of the world of research. An expert on animal behaviour, MacDonald frequently brings her undergraduate students to the zoo, exposing many of them to their first taste of research. But while many of these students have continued on in academia, many more have translated their experiences into a variety of well-paying jobs.

Right: Suzanne MacDonald

“Research gives students skills in areas they never would have imagined,” says MacDonald, whose work focuses on animals ranging from tigers and polar bears to baboons and Komodo dragons. “Ultimately, these experiences help students learn about themselves more than anything else.”

York students who are interested in becoming involved in research should speak with their professors, check departmental notices, and visit the student section of York’s Research Web site.

This article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, research assistant in the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation.