Research Rookies hit their fields early at NIU

Published: Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Nov. 13, 2011 11:17 p.m. CDT

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By the end of her freshman year at Northern Illinois University, Lauren Boddy had completed an extensive research project in the field of psychology.

It’s an opportunity that not many first-year students had access to before a pilot Research Rookies program landed on campus last year. The research program is geared toward “rookies,” or students who are typically in their first or second year of college.

Students in the program interview and choose a faculty mentor who helps guide them through the research process as it applies to their field.

They don’t earn college credit for participating in the yearlong program, but many students hope it will prepare them for pursuing a master’s degree or eventually a doctorate degree.

Getting into the program isn’t easy. This year 120 students applied to fill the 40 available slots. Last year 17 students participated. The application process includes an interview, review of transcripts and letters of recommendation.

Julia Spears, director of the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning, which heads Research Rookies, said students in the program don’t necessarily have to be the top of their class or need the highest test scores.

“We take students of all abilities, but what we’re really looking for is curiosity,” she said. “Someone who has ideas, and is an independent thinker and wants to explore, and is not afraid to take risks.”

As a sophomore psychology major, Boddy is embarking on her second research project under the Research Rookies program – exploring how parental bonding in the first 16 years of life affects a child’s eating habits.

Boddy said she’s interested in eating disorders and hopes to someday specialize in that area of psychology.

“I think the biggest positive outcome of [Research Rookies] so far is I’ve really created a close relationship with the faculty in my field,” she said. “Everyone is kind of rooting for me to succeed.”

Faculty mentor Dave Murphy, assistant professor of geography, said the program helps close the gap between the high school and college experience for incoming students. It also gives them an opportunity to explore a field of study in-depth as first- or second-year students.

“You never know what you really want to do until you try it,” Murphy said. “They get faculty exposure and understand what they’re in for.”

Wayne Duerkes, a junior transfer student at NIU, is majoring in history with hopes of pursuing a doctorate degree. He entered the Research Rookies program at the start of the fall semester and believes the skills he’s learned already have enhanced his college experience, not only in his history courses, but in all of his classes.

“It’s most decidedly made my projects stand out,” Duerkes said.

Research Rookies is aimed at undergraduates who typically don’t get a chance to participate in research projects until they’re upperclassmen or graduate students, Spears said. She was involved in a similar program at another university and thought it would work well at NIU.

The program falls in line with the Vision 2020 plan launched by President John Peters in 2010. The overlying goal of the initiative is to make NIU the most student-centered public research university in the Midwest.

“I think undergraduate research is a great opportunity for students to learn about themselves, to learn about their field,” Spears said. “But more importantly, by having the umbrella of the program, we’re providing the soft skills students need to navigate the university.”

The program culminates at the end of the spring semester when students show their projects at the Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day. This year, students are tackling topics that include public health issues, eradicating sex trafficking and how color is used in marketing.

Duerkes’ research centers on what caused men from northern Illinois to leave their families and homes to fight for the Union during the Civil War. He spends about five to 10 hours a week researching archives at NIU, the Joiner History Room in Sycamore and online sources.

“I would hope that NIU could add more students next year,” Duerkes said. “It’s just a phenomenal opportunity.”

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