Student research participation divides along gender, athletic lines

This article is part of the series Fall 2014 Student Poll

Around one-third of students have worked on research while at Brown, according to a Herald poll conducted Oct. 22-23.

But this percentage varies largely based on factors such as class year and concentration. While only about 15 percent of first-years and sophomores have participated in research, more than half of juniors and seniors have.

Students within the life sciences were the most likely to have conducted research, with just under half having worked on research projects. About one-third of students concentrating in social sciences and just under a third of physical sciences concentrators have conducted research. Humanities concentrators were the least likely to have conducted research, with about 30 percent reporting having done so.

Athletes were also less likely than non-athletes to have conducted research, with just under 20 percent of athletes having participated in research projects compared to about 35 percent of non-athletes. Athletes were also found to be less likely to participate in research during the year than non-athletes.

The poll also indicates that more male students than female students have worked as paid research assistants. Of those students who have worked as paid employees doing research, 55.6 percent were males and 41.3 percent were female, though 54.1 percent of the population that took the poll were female.

International students were more likely than domestic students to have wanted to work on research but not done so. About 65 percent of international students said they have not conducted research but want to, compared to 53.2 percent of domestic students who responded in this way.

A balancing act
Charlotte Walmsley ’16, a cross country runner and a research assistant in the Schloss Visual Perception Lab, said she was not surprised that athletes are less likely to pursue research during the year. Given athletes’ time constraints due to practices and games, very few find open time to spend in a lab, though it is possible for them to do so if they are determined to make research a priority, she added.
“Everybody has five (free) hours a week. Even athletes,” Walmsley said.

But many athletes find juggling sports and research to be too hectic, said Emma Blake ’15, who played softball for two years. Blake left the softball team in order to focus more on research and school, she said.

“All of my friends from softball who do research are no longer playing softball,” Blake added.

The fact that athletes choose to spend their time differently than other students is in part a reflection of the advantages of a liberal education, said Bartosz Zerebecki ’15. Each student who comes to Brown has different goals about what they want to get out of their education, and athletes just happen to want to focus on sports, he said.

Incoming first-year athletes may have the sense that few current athletes concentrate in the hard sciences and think they are not capable of concentrating in STEM fields, said Heather Sweeney ’16, a member of the track and field team.

But the results from the poll did not show any differences in concentration patterns between athletes and non-athletes.

Athletes’ lower rate of participation undergraduate research is simply a result of busy schedules, not a sign of less intellectual ability, said Kelsey Brown ’18.

A ‘patriarchal hangover’
Of the population of students who have worked as paid employees doing research, about 56 percent were male, while only 46 percent of the population who took the poll were male.

Oludurotimi Adetunji, associate dean of the college and director of the Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award program, said he found the gender difference surprising because more females than males have been awarded UTRA funding for each of the past five years.

A “patriarchal hangover” may be partially to blame for men’s higher rate of paid research experience, Zerebecki said. Women have difficulties getting internships and jobs in STEM fields because it has traditionally been a male-dominated arena, he added.

Personality differences might also play a role in the differences in gender representation in undergraduate research, Blake said. Pursuing research requires a student to be a “go-getter” by initiating a conversation with a professor, she said. STEM students tend to have a representation of being go-getters, and since fewer females concentrate in STEM fields, this could account for the disparity, Blake added.

But the Herald poll revealed males outnumbered females only in the physical sciences, with 45.3 percent of males listing a physical science as a concentration compared to 23.5 percent of females.

Around one quarter of females concentrate in life sciences, compared to 17.7 percent of males.

Reasons for research
Several factors contribute to a student’s decision to work on research, Zerebecki said. Students’ cultural backgrounds may contribute to their being more or less likely to approach professors about conducting research, said Zerebecki, who is from Poland. But he added that he has not noticed the disparity between international and domestic students in his own experience.

The main factor in finding a research opportunity is personal motivation, Zerebecki said. He is currently working on his honors thesis for his independent concentration in postcolonial studies.

Resources with information about how to pursue undergraduate research are “out there but not always easy to find,” Brown said. A student has to be willing to initiate a conversation with a professor, which may intimidate many students and prevent them from participating in research, she added.

Several students said they wished there were more advertisements for research projects available to them, rather than having to seek them out by themselves.

“I know it makes sense that if you want it you should seek it out, but I think that they could make it a little easier to find,” Blake said.
Getting to know professors more closely makes the process of finding research projects of interest easier, said Alex Sepolen ’16, who is working on a research project in the humanities.

It is typically more difficult for humanities students than STEM students to find research, Sepolen said, adding that there are far fewer humanities research projects at any given time. But Sepolen added she has found it relatively easy to get involved in such opportunities.

The University is “doing everything we can” to increase the number of UTRAs awarded to students conducting research in the humanities, Adetunji said.

- Additional reporting by Riley Davis

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