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Stanford grants help undergrad students be researchers, too

STANFORD -- Undergraduates are creating, as well as absorbing knowledge, through Stanford University's Undergraduate Research Opportunities program.

With topics ranging from subversive poetry to gene expression in sleep-deprived rats, 99 undergraduates won research grants of $2,500 each this year. An additional 230 undergrads received small grants of up to $500 each.

"The quality of the projects is really terrific," said Laura Selznick, director of the program.

"We try to tell the students: 'You should do something that's all your own sometime between the time you come in and the time you graduate. You shouldn't spend your whole academic life just as a sponge sucking up the old knowledge, but you should also spend your time making some new knowledge.'

"Research doesn't have to be dusty, dry and irrelevant. And it isn't restricted to just test tubes and lab coats and science, although there are fabulous opportunities in the test tubes, lab coats and science departments. But we also fund creative arts and theater projects."

For example, Adam Tobin, a junior in English, is researching, writing, producing and performing in a two-act show based on The Canterbury Tales.

Funded by an endowment and donations, program grants are evenly divided among three categories: social sciences; natural sciences or engineering; and humanities or creative arts. They are awarded independently of financial need.

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities office holds three grant competitions each year. Small grants, up to $500, are available each quarter.

Major grants of $2,500 are available only in the spring. Major grant projects must extend over three academic quarters and serve as the student's honors project if his or her department offers honors. A student turned down for a major grant is automatically considered for a small grant.

"It's amazing that the money's out there," said Beth Niestat, a junior in anthropology who won a major grant for a study of Christianity in Israel. "In a lot of places it's unheard of for undergraduates to be given this type of opportunity."

That is no accident, Selznick said. The program was a featured objective of the recently completed Stanford Centennial Campaign of fund raising.

"The university has really made this a priority," she said. "We have an endowment of $6 million at this point."

Interest from that endowment provides $240,000 each year, Selznick said, and last year a total of $300,000 went to 300 projects. That money has come from the endowment and donations from individuals, faculty members, trustees and even former grant winners.

In order to receive funding, a student must be in good academic standing and write a proposal that includes the research hypothesis, the project details and a proposed budget.

The student also must have a letter of recommendation from a faculty sponsor. Billboards and computer databases help students locate faculty members with matching research interests. Niestat used the Folio system at the Career Planning and Placement Center to find her faculty sponsor, Carol Delaney, an assistant professor of anthropology.

Niestat will investigate "Religious, Cultural and National Identity of American Christians in Israel" with funding from the anthropology department and Harriet Fullerton of Pasadena.

Niestat will spend the summer in Israel working with and interviewing members of an American Christian organization, as well as traveling to youth hostels to talk to others visiting Israel. In the fall she will return to Stanford to write a thesis.

Her project blends her experiences in the classroom with a year off she spent in Israel.

"Then, the project was working with Jews in Israel, learning more about Judaism," she said. "I came back here and took Carol Delaney's religion class. It looked at religion from an anthropological perspective, which is something I'd never seen before, and it got me interested in Christianity."

Tobin conceived of his project at Oxford, where he spent a quarter teaching a student theater group improvisation techniques. It is a two-act performance drawn from his two favorite classes - drama with senior lecturer Patricia Ryan and Chaucer with English Prof. Seth Lerer, who is sponsoring the project.

Tobin will spend the summer researching The Canterbury Tales, studying literary criticism, compiling information for his actors and writing a script. The show will be staged in the fall, and in winter he will write an evaluation of it as his honors thesis.

"Half is adapted by me from The Canterbury Tales," Tobin said.

"Chaucer didn't finish The Canterbury Tales. He only wrote 30 out of 120 tales that he said he was going to write. So the other half (of the production) is going to be improvised completely on stage, based on themes and narrative in the Middle Ages.

"I'm basically an actor, improviser and writer, so it merges all the things I've been studying."



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