Research grants fund NU students' passions

    Whether you want to follow an aspiring Olympic athlete through South Africa, explore fair trade farmers’ struggles in Ecuador or travel the United States hanging out with punk bands, Northwestern will pay for you to do it.

    Jacqueline Ovalle, a Bienen senior with a customized major in music entrepreneurship, walked into Peter Civetta’s office last year and pitched a loose idea for a research project: “I am obsessed with punk rock.” After that, she met with him every two weeks for several months until she received a research grant.

    “We are going to teach you how to take the money,” said Civetta, the director of Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research.

    The office helps match students with faculty who have expertise in the areas related to their research projects. Civetta provides one-on-one advising. “We work on the assumption that students have no idea how to put together an independent project or how to write a research grant proposal,” Civetta said.

    Civetta explained to Ovalle what she needed to get the grant, helped her form a research question and a proposal, and helped her through the process of finding and approaching a faculty advisor.

    This summer, with the $3000 Summer Undergraduate Research Grant (URG), Ovalle documented the Latina response to the Riot Grrrl movement by talking with punk bands at concerts and gatherings in Kansas City, Missouri; San Antonio, Texas; Chicago and Los Angeles. The grant covered travel costs in addition to food, housing and concert tickets.

    Seniors Annabel Edwards and Stacy Kim were awarded a grant this summer to make a documentary about a small town in Brazil called Vale do Capão, which Edwards called “an alternative society of sorts,” where residents from far and wide live a relaxed lifestyle with no paved roads, no cell phone coverage, limited wifi access and a lot of hiking.

    Kim met with Civetta in January and she and Edwards applied for a grant in April. In September, they arrived in Vale do Capão, with limited Portuguese skills, and stood in the center of the village talking to everyone they encountered. They focused their documentary on the everyday lives of three Capão residents, capturing the remote town’s lifestyle.

    Kim and Edwards were awarded $4,000 each, which covered the cost of their visas, plane tickets, transportation, housing, food and filming equipment.

    The amount of students funded and money awarded have both tripled in under six years, according to Civetta. In the 2014-15 academic year, 422 student projects received just under $1 million.

    That money comes from the university’s budget. “It’s a rich school. This is what we should be doing with our money,” Civetta said. “If the faculty think that these are really meaningful experiences for these students and they’re going to get a lot out of it, we’ll come up with the money.”

    The experience of travelling and conducting research on a topic she cared about was certainly meaningful for Ovalle. “It just enriched my understanding of my career and of my craft,” she said.

    “Anybody who has any sort of interest in doing a project like this should absolutely go for it, because it’s a lot harder to do stuff like this once you graduate,” Edwards said.

    During a URG-funded summer investigating the cultural identity of youth from the minority Hakka language and culture in Taiwan, Rosalie Chan, a Medill junior, rediscovered her grandmother’s culture and solidified her interest in reporting and writing.

    “The last time I was in Taiwan, my grandma was talking to a neighbor and they were speaking in Hakka and there was this sense of kinship,” Chan said. “I just wanted to learn more about this aspect of my background.” Though she didn’t know much about it before, her Hakka culture became increasingly important to her as she learned about it firsthand and formed networks within the community. She plans to continue her research, and so do Ovalle, Kim and Edwards.

    “The resources that Northwestern has are really incredible,” Edwards said. “If you don’t take advantage of those while you’re a student here, it’s a huge waste.”

    Editor's note: Rosalie Chan has previously contributed to NBN.


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