A little research shows that research at Nebraska really pays.

Zach Smith made students jealous that he had his research funded, and got paid to do it.

College students from around the country were amazed, and maybe jealous, when UNL senior Zach Smith told them that he got to do one-on-one research with a professor.

They couldn’t believe the University of Nebraska–Lincoln had such a research program, outside of a lab, for undergrads. Their colleges didn’t.

And you get paid, too?

“Even students from some really high quality schools like Georgetown and George Washington were amazed,” he said.

Smith, a double political science and vocal music major,earlier this year returned to Lincoln from seven months in Jordan, where he met many students from other colleges who also were studying abroad. Smith was in Jordan to study Arabic and to talk to young Arab Muslims about their opinions regarding democracy, Islam, society, family and the West.

The research was part of his experience in UNL’s unique UCARE program – Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experiences. The program, supported by the Pepsi Endowment and Program of Excellence funds and housed in the Office of Undergraduate Studies at UNL, pairs highly motivated students like Smith with faculty members for two years of research.

In the first year, the students help with their professors’ projects. In the second year, the students conduct their own projects while the professors serve as mentors. Over the two years, each student gets paid up to $4,400, depending on the needs for each specific project.

“UCARE is a truly invaluable program that UNL is very lucky to have,” says Smith, now in his second year of the program. “The opportunity to do paid research abroad, as I did, will enhance applications to internships, graduate schools and career opportunities in the future.”

This collaboration benefits both students and faculty: Students get valuable research opportunities while rubbing shoulders with top professors; and the professors get fresh eyes, fresh ideas and enthusiastic students like Smith to help them with their research.

Smith’s faculty mentor is Michael Wagner, a professor of political science. While Smith was in Jordan, they stayed in touch through e-mails.

Far too little is known about how Muslims in other countries view the relationships between politics and religion, Wagner says, and Zach’s research is “a very important start.”

The professor says UCARE makes his life better in at least two ways. First, it lets him work with promising students like Smith.

“Their excitement, willingness to learn and drive is infectious,” Wagner says.

Second, UCARE allows the professor to do more research, more quickly.

For one of Wagner’s projects that began last spring, Smith helped him and a graduate student set up focus group meetings. Smith took notes during those meetings. He helped compile field notes after the meetings and then transcribed audio from all the focus groups verbatim.

What would have taken Wagner and his graduate student months was accomplished in just a few weeks. They were able to write their first paper over the summer, present it at a conference in the fall, then revise it and get it accepted for publication this past January.

“To begin a qualitative project in which we interviewed more than 100 people in the spring and have a published paper and a funded grant to extend our project by the winter is a really fast timeline in academic research,” Wagner says. “We couldn’t have done it without Zach and without UCARE.”

UCARE, he says, is “the envy of the nation.”

“When I meet people at conferences and they see that I have acknowledged the role that UCARE students played in my work in a presentation or in the acknowledgements section of a paper, they always say that they wish their university had a program like ours at Nebraska.”

This year, about 435 top students participate in UCARE, according to Laura Damuth, director of undergraduate research at UNL and director of UCARE since it began a decade ago.

“It’s huge,” Damuth says. “It’s all over campus – the sciences, music, art, dance, theater, English, history. There are some really exciting projects going on.”

The program attracts high quality students to the university, she says. “Many, many students” in the Honors Program, she says, have told her they chose UNL over another school because of UCARE.

“I hear students say, ‘Well, MIT has an undergrad research program, too, but I wouldn’t have been able to work directly with faculty members.'”

Through UCARE, she’s seeing many more faculty members in the arts and humanities find ways to incorporate undergraduates into their work. UCARE especially helps such professors, she says, because they usually don’t get as much outside funding as professors in the hard sciences do.

Susan Levine, head of the dance program in the Hixson-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, is working with UCARE students Jessica Bear and Amy Yungwirth on a project called Expanding a Historical Proscenium Based Dance Work Into Film.

They are turning a dance work that was created through traditional means into a “dance for film,” an emerging genre in the dance world. The piece is about the role Richard Strauss played in the Nazi party, ostensibly to save his half-Jewish daughter-in-law from persecution.

Levine’s UCARE students are looking into grant sources to create the film. They’re scouting locations. They’re organizing rehearsals. They’re investigating history. They’re looking for conferences where they could present the work.

“I love having more personal contact with students,” she says. “And I really appreciate the help with seeing this project through to fruition. I also love seeing Jessica and Amy take ownership in the project and grow their commitment to seeing it realized.”

The students’ UCARE topics are wide ranging. They’re complex. They’re impressive.

One student is researching Control Devices for Minimally Invasive Surgical Robots. Another student’s topic is Have They Changed Their Way of Cheating?: An Analysis of Management Fraud Schemes Post Enron and SOX.

Smith, the student who studied abroad in Jordan, is researching Islam and Christianity: Dominant Religions’ Effect on Political Behavior – an especially relevant issue in today’s world, he says. He wants to work for the State Department someday and focus on Middle Eastern affairs.

He’s amazed he’s been able to establish such a good working relationship with Professor Wagner while still an undergraduate.

“I have UCARE – and Dr. Wagner – to thank for that.”

UNL is focusing on two priorities during the Campaign for Nebraska – undergraduate education and research. The UCARE undergraduate research program is just one of many examples of how outside money helps undergraduates at UNL receive a quality education.

Private money also helps support UNL students through many need- and merit-based scholarships, and it attracts and retains the best and brightest faculty members through named professorships and endowed chairs. If you’d like to help, please consider giving online to the UNL Student Scholarship Fund or to the UNL Chancellor’s Excellence Fund or contact the foundation at 800-432-3216.

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