OSCAR celebrates 10 years of undergraduate student research

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Francis Aquisanda OSCAR
Mason alumnus Francis Aquisanda working in a lab as part of OSCAR program in 2014. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

When Francis Aguisanda, BS Biology ’14, conducted undergraduate research through George Mason University’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), he learned a lot about how neurons develop in fruit flies.

He learned even more about himself—and the future he could create with the skills he was developing.

Aguisanda, who went on to conduct research at the National Institutes of Health and earn a master’s degree in stem cell biology from Stanford University, is among the 2,900 Mason students who have received a total of $5 million in OSCAR funding over the past decade.

OSCAR is marking its 10th anniversary this spring as part of its Spring Celebration of Student Scholarship, a virtual event, May 4-7.

“I like to think that the experience I gained through OSCAR in research and the communication of that research is married happily in my current job,” said Aguisanda, a technical writer at 10x Genomics, a biotech company in the San Francisco Bay area. “I get to use my scientific training and my love of communication every day at the office and couldn't be happier.”

OSCAR 2016
In 2016, OSCAR students traveled to Asheville, North Carolina, to attend the annual National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

The undergraduate research ecosystem OSCAR supports is one reason why Mason is among the nation’s top research universities. But undergraduate research can still be an unfamiliar concept for some students, said OSCAR assistant director Karen Lee, even as the university has prioritized experiential learning opportunities.

Students who take part discover how life- and career-defining such experiences can be as they evolve from student to scholar.

“When I say ‘research,’ people tend to have a stereotype in their head of what research looks like,” Lee said, “particularly students, and they don’t see themselves. There aren’t any majors or colleges where you couldn’t formulate a project to fit under an OSCAR umbrella or some other research, creative or entrepreneurial program at Mason.”

Lee and her colleagues make that pitch every chance they get: in presentations, at orientation, and in drop-in rooms at admissions events. Located on the second floor of the Johnson Center, OSCAR is known for its willingness to accommodate. If a student has a research project idea, the program connects them with faculty mentors in that field. If a student is unsure of a research path, OSCAR can suggest one or involve the student in an existing project. And if a student wants to pursue an interest unrelated to their major, that’s encouraged, too.

Jalah Townsend
Jalah Townsend. Photo provided

Projects can take many forms. Lee recalled one OSCAR researcher, creative writing major Madison Gaines, who interviewed biracial students and wrote poems based on the students’ experiences. Others find multiple avenues to explore within the same general research area. Jalah Townsend, BA History ’19, continues to conduct research related to her OSCAR project, which centered on the impact of racial and ethnic identity-based student organizations on the first-year transitions of Black college students.

OSCAR connected Townsend with two advisors—Blake Silver, director of data analytics and assessment in the Honors College and an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, and Leotie Yard, assistant director of care and outreach, Student Support and Advocacy Center and the Office of Housing and Residence Life.

“I’ve gotten the opportunity to work as a research assistant for so many different groups and without this [OSCAR] project I never would have been able to do that,” said Townsend, who this spring is earning her master’s degree in higher education at the University of Maryland and will pursue a PhD there. She recently completed a project on the experiences of Black students in a living learning community.

“I think that when people think of research they probably think of STEM-oriented projects or science experiments,” Townsend said. “Those interested in the social sciences and humanities might not fully grasp that they can also do research.”

For any project, undergraduate researchers learn how to set goals, collect data, think critically and analytically, collaborate with graduate students and faculty, work across disciplines, and improve their written and oral communication skills so they can convey their work to both experts and nonexperts.

Some also learn from failure. But the key word there is learn, said Bethany Usher, associate provost for undergraduate education and the founding director of OSCAR.

“Doing research isn’t just about the results, but learning through the process—and the problem-solving that inevitably happens along the way,” Usher said. “In addition to support for their projects, we help students persevere through the challenges so they don’t give up too early. They learn resilience and confidence in their own abilities.”

And have some fun along the way.

OSCAR 2013
Student researchers present their work at the 2013 Spring Celebration of Student Scholarship at the Center for the Arts. This was the second such celebration. Photo by Evan Cantwell/Creative Services

“The literature suggests that students who do projects like this leave college with warmer, fuzzier feelings as undergraduates, and they also gain exposure to the real skills that employers are looking for,” Lee said. “We want to get as many students as possible exposed to authentic research or creative experiences.”

Mason is known as a leader in providing such opportunities. In 2015, the Council on Undergraduate Research honored the university with its Campus-Wide Award for Undergraduate Research Accomplishments, noting that Mason has created “a national model for other institutions to emulate.”

OSCAR provides funding to compensate students for their research work to make sure opportunities are accessible to all. The number of federal work-study research assistants has grown from 141 in 2016-17 to more than 190 today. Reimbursement funding is also available for travel to conferences.

Sometimes it is not students but faculty who need to be sold on the possibilities of undergraduate research. Danielle Rudes, associate professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society, will often hear other university researchers—particularly those at institutions without graduate students—say, “I can’t do that because I only have undergrads.”

“My answer is always, yes, you can,” Rudes said. “You just have to scale it to what you have. I can do the same thing in a strictly undergraduate program. OSCAR is really what inspired all of that for me.

“Once I train undergraduates, I don’t treat them any differently than my graduate research assistants,” Rudes added. “It’s an even playing field of researchers.”

Bryce and Heather
Bryce Kushmerick-McCune (left) and Heather E. Pickett present their research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in 2019. Photo by Strategic Communications

Two students Rudes has mentored through OSCAR, Bryce Kushmerick-McCune, BS Criminology, Law and Society '21, and Heather Pickett, BS Criminology, Law and Society '20, conducted a study on the effect of solitary confinement. They would visit state prisons for days at a time to interview “residents” of restricted housing units.

“The conversations that I had with these people really stuck with me because they shared some very personal information and stories with me, especially during our conversations about how they were coping in such a restricted environment,” Kushmerick-McCune said. “The whole experience made me fall in love with qualitative research because it can add so much backstory and context to a project.”

Kushmerick-McCune and Pickett presented their research at the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences conference in Maryland, at the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research in Georgia, and were accepted to present at the North South Criminology Conference in Cork, Ireland. The research partners continue to finalize their paper.

“I had no idea how large this project would become, or the influence that it would have on my professional life,” said Kushmerick-McCune, who along with Pickett received a national award from the Consortium for Undergraduate Law and Justice Programs.

Undergraduate research can lead to even grander prizes. LaNitra Berger, senior director in the Office of Fellowships in the Office of Undergraduate Education, said there is a direct connection between the skills that students develop as researchers and their ability to win nationally competitive awards.

“Funding organizations are looking to develop young people into transformational thought leaders, advocates, and public servants,” Berger said. “The undergraduate research experience at Mason prepares students for success in all of these areas.”