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Research

The Rise of Student Research: A Short History

[Sara Pavan]
Sara Pavan. Photo by Janelle Quirk.

Sara Pavan, a PhD candidate in political studies, embodies what modern-day students bring to the research enterprise: initiative, intellectual curiosity and excellence.

Pavan, an international student, was drawn to Queen’s because faculty members include “the most important contributors to the current international debate on immigrant integration.” Her supervisors are Drs. Keith Banting (Political Studies) and Fiona Kay (Sociology), and her research focuses on how political institutions in countries with large immigration flows impact immigrants' integration into democratic politics.

In 2013, Pavan received the prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and the Trudeau Scholarship to support her leading-edge research. She’s just completing her dissertation, which “examines immigrant integration policies and their effects on the political participation of different minority groups.” Her work, while both theoretically and academically important, also has urgent global societal value.

Today’s powerful impact of students on research has evolved over decades, says Queen’s University historian Dr. Duncan McDowall. “In fact, from the university’s founding in 1841 up until the 1960s, Queen’s focus was mainly on building a reputation for teaching,” he notes. “Research was peripheral.”

Research in the early days was curiosity-based, and often self-funded, says Dr. Brenda Brouwer, Vice-Provost and Dean of Graduate Studies. “However, a graduate degree has always been about advanced studies and discovery, building evidence upon which decisions are based.”

Pockets of research developed slowly on campus. For example, the Chown Science Research Chair, established in 1919, was intended to release the holder from teaching and administrative duties to focus on research, with an unexpected result of increasing graduate student research involvement. But research stayed on the fringes until 1943, McDowall says, when the Queen’s Board of Graduate Studies was created, and for the first time, professors were expected to conduct research. New funding from Queen’s Park also meant “many bright graduate students could be paid to do research,” he adds.

[archival photo of student working]
Student conducting research, 1970. Queen’s University Archives.

Academic research really ignited on campus in the 1960s and 1970s, when various agencies, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, were created to provide systematic funding. At the same time, Queen’s Park was putting pressure on universities to grow their graduate studies programs.

“There were increased resources for faculty to pursue research,” says Brouwer, “and with that came progressive development of scholarships and fellowships to support research trainees − graduate students.”

Reflecting this change, in 1963, the Queen’s School of Graduate Studies and Research was created. Graduate studies enrolment and student research grew quickly − and this was to continue unabated. By 1995, the graduate and research portfolios were so large and complex that they split into separate units to make them manageable and enable each to grow and flourish.

Today, with more than 120 programs, graduate education and research at Queen’s has spread to all corners of campus in all disciplines. “Across the board, we rely heavily on the engagement of graduate students, who make an indelible mark on research and discovery,” Brouwer says.

There’s also a push toward undergraduate research, says Dr. Jill Scott, Vice-Provost (Teaching and Learning). A decade ago, the annual Inquiry@Queen’s Undergraduate Research Conference was founded to help disseminate undergraduate research. “Back then, there was less conversation in higher education around this, so Queen’s is a leader in establishing this kind of event.” Queen’s is also home to the Undergraduate Student Summer Research Fellowships (USSRF) Program.

[student speaking at podium]
Inquiry@Queen’s Undergraduate Research Conference

Other initiatives currently afoot include the development of a certificate in undergraduate research by the Faculty of Arts and Science, and a working group of the Provost’s Advisory Committee on Teaching and Learning (PACTL) that’s evaluating undergraduate research on campus, and how to support it.

Dr. Vicki Remenda, Associate Dean (Teaching and Learning, Faculty of Arts and Science), and chair of the PACTL working group, says students are keen. “We have members of the Arts and Science Undergraduate Society and the Alma Mater Society on our committee, and they are really excited about this movement, and the opportunities.”

Undergraduate research makes particular sense for Queen’s, Remenda adds, because a high percentage of undergraduate students − far more than at most universities − go on to seek an advanced degree. “The way I see it, it’s only going to get bigger and better and more embedded.”

Kirsteen MacLeod
(e)AFFECT Issue 10 Fall/Winter 2016