Communication senior Noah Perkins finds himself in a dark room, the blinds closed. An old man sits before him, behind a desk. Perkins had met him in person just a few moments ago in an off-the-grid stretch of woods just outside Seattle. The man begins to detail his past, telling tales from decades ago about how he was a “soldier in the war on drugs fighting on the right side,” the history of hemp and his risky involvement in the illegal pot industry. This peculiar scene was not part of a fictional short story, but rather one of Perkins’ experiences collecting information for his summer theater research.
Undergraduate research at Northwestern is usually perceived as a scientific endeavor. Yet there also exists a vast world of arts and humanities undergraduate research. Founded five years ago, the Office of Undergraduate Research acts as the main provider of both STEM and non-STEM undergraduate research opportunities. One of the office’s goals was to expand undergraduate research beyond the natural sciences into the arts and humanities as part of the University’s “We Will” fundraising campaign. Since the office’s creation, student participation in non-STEM research has increased by more than 50 percent, and over 80 faculty members have joined the program in the past year.
Dr. Peter Civetta, director of the program, says that while there was already a “set infrastructure” in place for STEM research, such opportunities did not exist for arts and humanities students until the office’s founding. In fact, he says the ability to tackle this issue sets NU’s research program apart from other universities.
“Putting together an independent project is not intuitive, nor is it taught in regular classes,” Civetta says. “Therefore, if we want students to participate, we have to guide them. We are successful in getting more arts and humanities students involved because we have created an infrastructure that allows them to succeed.”
The office can give as many grants as there are students who qualify for them, meaning there’s no competition. Rather, Civetta says that the grant process helps transform students’ interests and passions into meaningful research. A 35-member faculty committee reviews both STEM and non-STEM grant proposals in the same pool, meaning there’s no preference within the program for a certain field. This past year, over $1 million in grant money was awarded to students through Northwestern’s endowment.
Perkins’ research on stereotypes of marijuana users in Seattle is just one example of a student’s passion for a subject, centered around experiences rather than data collection. Within the first week, Perkins has attended the wedding of one of his marijuana-smoking interviewees and also travelled to a launch party for a marijuana law firm, mingling with the suit-and-tie executives growing Seattle’s marijuana industry. Perkins’ research will culminate in a play to be read in December.
Civetta’s office recognizes that the final product of research doesn’t have to be a paper but instead can be something that shows heightened knowledge about a field of study. The end product of a summer’s worth of research doesn’t even have to be tangible, like a play or a paper. Take the culmination of fifth year Bienen dual-degree Sam Garcia’s research: the ability to sing Chinese art song, a genre of vocal music often meant to be performed in a formal setting. Sam travelled to China this past summer to investigate the effect of the pitch in Chinese language on tones used in vocal performance of art song. Rather than simply “answer” his research question, he spent time learning the nuances and techniques of performing the genre, studying, among other places, at the first center for Chinese art song in Wuhan.
“Every morning, I would get up, warm up my voice and look at the repertoire I was going to sing with my teacher that day,” Garcia says. “My lessons with him were usually an hour and a half to two hours, and we would focus on one or two specific songs. He would be very regimented with me and always strict about every single word.”
Garcia says no professors in Bienen specialized in the art song he was researching.
“There was only one other person in my studio who did undergraduate research,” Garcia says. “Students in Bienen don’t understand that undergrad research like this can necessarily help your career.”
But thanks to his research, Garcia now possesses specific vocal skills, and he intends on performing many of his pieces in recital this year. He hopes to continue vocal studies in China next summer.
Even if students’ careers do not perfectly line up with their research, the skills they gain through the process are invaluable to employers, according to Civetta. Weinberg senior Linnea Hodge deconstructed the artistic presentation of a Northwest Native American Art Exhibition at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Hodge, who has worked with the Block Museum since the summer after her sophomore year, applied both her practical work in museums and her art history background to her research.
“[Art] exhibitions are important,” Hodge says. “In the best of all possible worlds, I would be making these exhibitions as an adult, but academically, I also find it really interesting how these exhibitions affect society.”
Moving from the Block Museum to working hands-on with real museum artifacts provided Hodge the perfect transition from just studying art to stepping into the boots of a museum curator. The URG office sees research as the gateway from college to the real world, moving from a place where students answer questions that have already been solved to one where they are required to approach problems without definite answers.
“The value [of arts and humanities research] is in the critical thinking and problem solving you get,” Civetta says. “Students here are so smart, so creative and so industrious. But they need to learn how to think in new way because that’s how careers will go. And undergraduate research is an incredible model to get them ready for that.”