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Undergrads on Duty: Is Research Supported?
[ Issue 107 Page 10 ] Thursday, May 12, 2011, 01:12:57 Paulo Kemper paulokemperfilho@gmail.com

I am currently an Electrical Engineering senior. Although the common sense is that undergraduates should just take classes while the graduate students do research, I learned here that this is not always true. With a Undergraduate Research Program (URP) grant right after my first semester, I was introduced to the world of research early and I liked it. At that moment I felt confident that KAIST was indeed striding towards the higher positions among the world’s top universities by boldly investing funds allowing its undergraduates to delve into graduate school practices long before graduation. But are we really?

From the school policies and the administration as a whole, I would say “yes!” There are various acronyms of research opportunities that are open to undergraduates: URP, HRHRP and so on. The budget that goes to support even conference travel can reach eight figures and most of those opportunities are very flexible in a wide range of topics. Most commonly desired deliverables are prototypes and papers, which means a lot of hands-on experience.

One may think that spending on undergraduates would be a waste of precious resources for KAIST. By being a former URP participant, I can tell you that undergraduates most likely do not have sufficient technical knowledge to expand the frontiers of human knowledge, but the situation of a first-year masters student is not much different. However, experiencing research in first person allowed me to understand what academia was about, and I am sure that those six months under the grant will save me at least a year of pain in grad school.

But then, what about the follow-up? If you have performed such research in your senior year and continue your research at graduate school, things will probably go smoothly. That may not be the case if you have done independent research in early years. Often is the case where you want to present your ideas to other researchers and get feedback to advance your research. Conferences are there for such needs. As a foreigner, since my fluency in Korean does not even come close to sustaining a kindergarten conversation, my only option is to look for international conferences. And that means traveling overseas and high expenses. The International Relations Team used to have a support fund for undergraduates to go on conferences, but not anymore. The surprising fact was that the departments apparently are not ready for undergraduate researchers. My research colleague and I went to our departments to look for support. No policies for supporting undergraduates willing to participate in conferences existed and apparently we were the first ones to ever ask that question. And no opportunity was given for us to try to pitch that idea to the department officials.

Although we somehow managed to find funding to go, our conference is scheduled to take place during finals week. Neither of us was able to get full consensus from our professors to do the exams either before or after the regular finals week. Quoting one of the professors who did not agree, “Attending a conference is not serious enough to be handled as a special case for implementing a separate examination.” Is that the right philosophy to protect the school investments made with all those grants? A bit of an unexpected answer, especially from people who not only are researchers themselves but also are willing to send their own graduate students to join the conference.

Although the KAIST administration has implemented means for the undergraduates to be active members of academia, there are still gaps to be filled. The departments and professors should embrace the idea as well, and perhaps provide such opportunities inside their own departments. Thumbs up to the Industrial Design department with their IDRP program, showing that despite the common misconception that they do not belong in a science and technology institute, they are way ahead in supporting undergraduate research. Are the engineers going to catch up as well? Hopefully yes, and hopefully sometime soon.

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