Quest for Knowledge

There are many paths to discovery at Notre Dame. In scientific laboratories, libraries and a multitude of other destinations, both on and off the beaten path, undergraduates are pushing into the unknown, seeking answers to the enduring questions of our time. On their quest for knowledge, they are charting their own courses into a world of inquiry and exploration.

An Amazing Opportunity

For senior Maria Martellaro, it was a combination of family history, a class, and a love of fiction that led to her intellectual fascination with the twists and turns of ancient labyrinths.

“I was reading a novel that featured labyrinths and their supposed meanings and uses,” she recalls. “It mentioned one in Lucca, Italy, where my mother’s family is from, and another in Chartres Cathedral in Paris, a place I was studying at the time.”

A Medieval Studies and Greek and Roman Civilization major, Martellaro was so intrigued by labyrinths and their connections in her life, she chose to apply for funding to study the symbols, which she describes as a “mysterious mix of mythology and theology.”

Maria Martellaro sitting at a desk with a book
Senior Maria Martellaro traveled to Europe to study ancient labyrinths

“There were — and are — so many questions I want to answer.”

Maria Martellaro Class of 2012

Through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program — or UROP — Martellaro was awarded a grant to pursue her interest in labyrinths, their meanings and their use in the Catholic Church in the medieval period.

“When I applied for the grant, I kept thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t let them think I’m crazy.’ I wasn’t sure if it was serious enough, but I was completely in love with the idea. There were — and are — so many questions I want to answer.”

Armed with this healthy dose of intellectual curiosity and a grant from UROP, Martellaro was able to travel and visit cathedrals in Chartres, France; Pavia, Ravenna, Rome, and Lucca, Italy.

Created by Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts (ISLA) in the College of Arts and Letters, UROP offers financial support to Arts and Letters undergraduates for independent research and creative projects. Since 2000, 842 awards have been made, totaling close to $1.4 million.

A gloved hand holds a test tube

“This generous resource has fostered intellectual development in undergraduates,” says Tom Merluzzi, professor of psychology and director of ISLA, which administers the funds. “In particular, the UROP awards are intended to promote creative, critical and analytic thinking. Students who submit proposals gain valuable skills and successes in proposal writing, which is an important skill in graduate school and in the marketplace.”

Representing a wide array of topics in the arts, social sciences and humanities, UROP projects are clear evidence that research is not restricted to the stereotypical discoveries made in a lab with test tubes and beakers. But that doesn’t mean research in the liberal arts is without its challenges, according to John T. McGreevy, I.A. O’Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters. In the humanities in particular, there are often tough language preparation requirements, and some students may be intimidated as they approach certain canonical texts.

“How, they ask, can I say anything new about Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’?” McGreevy explains. “But they can. Certain texts are so rich and have so many components that they bear, and indeed encourage, repeated examination at all levels from that of the advanced scholar to the bright undergraduate.”

Pushing Forward into the Unknown

Getting undergraduates to engage in research has been a University priority for years. In his 2005 inaugural address, Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., laid out his expectation that participation in this type of experiential learning should “double, and double again,” and that “students should stand on the edge of what is known and push forward into the unknown.” Since that time, opportunities have become more plentiful, participation more robust and subject matters more diverse.

Undergraduate Research Participation

A chart showing an increase from 10 percent to 25 percent from 2005 to 2011 A female student points to an area on a poster

At the heart of Notre Dame’s interdisciplinary resources for students wishing to engage in research is the Center for Undergraduate Scholarly Engagement (CUSE), which offers support and opportunities for undergraduates in any major and helps them apply for and win fellowships. The center is a source of ideas, advice and centralization of information, as well as a place to partner with faculty to initiate projects.

“Original research and engaging in other creative activities are essential components of undergraduate professional development,” says Deb Rotman, a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology who was recently appointed the new director of CUSE. “Students' sustained engagement with research both demonstrates and facilitates intellectual curiosity, scholastic maturity, and the development of widely marketable skills that make them competitive for prestigious national fellowships as well as in post-baccalaureate employment, graduate school, and other professional endeavors.”

Gloved hands using a dropper and a test tube

It’s Scientific

In the College of Science, students are encouraged to not only absorb information, but, through research, to be creators of new knowledge. "We want students to engage in undergraduate research because it is simply the best way to understand the scientific process," explains Dominic T. Chaloner, undergraduate research coordinator for the college. “Although faculty teach students about science in the classroom, there is no substitute for participating in the real thing.”

In the summer of 2011, the college funded research experiences for 60 undergraduates, sending students across the country and around the world to learn and discover.

An “Accelerating” Experience

Senior Nancy Paul in a lab

Senior Nancy Paul worked with Piet van Isacker at the Grand Acceleratuer National d’Irons Lourds (GANIL) on a theoretical research project on nuclear masses.

“This project diversified my studies of nuclear masses, as well as let me fulfill a lifelong dream of working in France,” Paul says. As is the case with many Notre Dame students, she had an opportunity early-on in her studies to work with one of the University’s world-class researchers. In her case, it was with Ani Aprahamian, Freimann Professor of Experimental Nuclear Physics.

“I’ve been working with Dr. Aprahamian’s group in the Nuclear Structure Laboratory since my first semester at Notre Dame,” says Paul, whose research experience as an undergrad has allowed her to become a certified accelerator operator, assist with experiments using Notre Dame’s 10 MV particle accelerator, and conduct theoretical nuclear astrophysics studies.

In addition, Paul has contributed to three papers that are being submitted for publication, participated in astronomical observing in Arizona, and attended conferences in New Mexico, Hawaii and other locations. Following graduation, she plans to complete a doctorate in nuclear physics and pursue a career in teaching and research.

All in the Genes

Senior Holden Lombard in a lab pouring liquid into a jar

Senior Holden Lombard teamed up with Jada Benn Torres, an assistant professor of anthropology, to study the history of a Caribbean population known as the Jamaican Maroons.

Lombard studied the Maroons, a group of Africans that years ago refused to remain in slavery, to determine whether they identify or see themselves as different from other Jamaicans today.

“By doing this research, I wanted to not only shed light on the complexity of genetic and cultural identity as it relates to ancestry, but also to acknowledge the resiliency of a minority community surrounded by a majority culture for an extended period of time,” explained Lombard, a double major in physics in medicine and anthropology.

Along the way, Lombard says he’s been impressed with the encouragement he’s gotten from Notre Dame faculty. “They were completely supportive in my ability to do it and even allowed me my own assignment of data analysis using a brand new machine in the Nuclear Lab in Nieuwland Science Hall. It’s been clear to me that the faculty are more than willing to help students find their place within all this research business."


Both Paul and Lombard plan to pursue advanced degrees upon graduation, as does senior Paul Baranay, a double major in biology and applied mathematics who spent his summer in the Undergraduate Research Program at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, New York. Over a ten-week period, he helped to design a new software program to improve the quality of genome assembly, the process which reveals an organism’s DNA sequence.

“After graduate school, I hope to continue on in academia and become a professor,” Baranay says. “While I look forward to running my own research lab some day, I also hope to teach and advise the next generation of undergraduate researchers.”

I2D2: Engineering in Action

In the College of Engineering, an innovative I2D2 (Imagination, Innovation, Discovery and Design) course combines experience in research with community service. Engineering undergraduates work with fifth-grade students from the South Bend Community School Corporation on two active learning projects designed to help the students learn about the kinds of questions that engineers and scientists ask and answer, such as “ Why do things work the way they do?” and “How do we make them work better?”

Two Notre Dame students and a fifth-grade boy working with Legos on the floor

Irish Pet Project

First-year engineering students work with fifth-grade “customers” to brainstorm ideas for toy robotic pets. The engineering students then design and build these pets using the LEGO® Mindstorms® NXT system and demonstrate them at the intermediate schools at a later date, when the fifth-graders will judge them. “I think Notre Dame is unique in recognizing that having a project-oriented experience and understanding what your customer needs right from the beginning is a key part of what engineering is about,” says Jay Brockman, associate dean in the College of Engineering.

Closeup of a tray of various types of Legos

Domer Freewheeling Derby

Fifth-graders design and race LEGO vehicles to learn about energy and motion. Through racing their designs and collecting data, the students learn how scientists and engineers test their ideas with experiments.

I2D2 activities provide engineering students with critical insights into modeling, computer programming, design and other engineering concepts, while introducing them to the rewards of community service.

A woman pumps water into a bucket
Students have explored the business implications of issues such as the global water supply.

To the Power of Business

At the Mendoza College of Business, research opportunities are vital to gaining a deeper understanding of the power of business and its impact on the environment and the human community.

Through courses such as Foresight in Business and Society, required for all business juniors, students are challenged to engage in the process of identifying and evaluating major issues and trends impacting society in the future and exploring potential business implications that can drive sustainable innovation. Past projects have covered a range of topics, from educating women in China, to the global water supply, to the rich-poor gap in the U.S. economy.

Mendoza undergraduates also may complete Special Studies in Innovation, a management course where students collaborate with their peers in marketing, engineering and design to create a detailed proposal for a research environment that encourages innovation and problem solving. They also can work on projects of personal interest through independent study under the general supervision of a faculty member.

On the Way to the Forum

In the School of Architecture, a team of faculty and students traveled to the Roman Forum—the center of political, religious, commercial, and judicial life in ancient Rome—to measure, document and draw large areas of the historic site.

Architecture student Larissa Esmilla, '11 draws on a large sheet of white paperArchitectural ruins of the Roman Forum
Architecture students created some 60 images of the ancient ruins at the Roman Forum.

As part of a course taught by Professor Krupali Uplekar Krusche titled “Documentation of World Heritage,” the team used conventional and innovative methods, including a Leica 3-D laser scanner, for measuring and understanding this World Heritage Site.With permissions and interest generated by the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, Ministry of Heritage and Culture and the Archaeological Service, the objective of this project was to accurately measure and draw the monuments and ruins at the Roman Forum.

The students produced 27 scans, 30 panoramic views and scaled detailed images, in addition to hand-measured data. The information collected was merged to create watercolor renderings of the exact position and measurements of the ruins at the Forum—the centralized area around which ancient Roman civilization developed—and is being utilized by the Digital Historical Architectural Research and Material Analysis (DHARMA).

Putting it All Together

The results of research come in many forms — scientific discoveries, published papers, or creative bodies of work, just to name a few. For some Notre Dame students, particularly in the College of Arts and Letters, it all culminates in a senior thesis, a year-long project in which they work one on one with a faculty member to produce an in-depth piece of work that may include performances, productions, artwork and written texts. The College has pushed to create a strong senior thesis culture in recent years and has succeeded in achieving a 30-percent participation rate, a figure that has tripled since 2008.

2011 Undergraduate Research Summer Symposium

Whatever the end product may be, no project is complete until the outcome has been shared and reviewed by the researchers’ peers — in this case, fellow undergraduates.

A prime example of this critical interaction can be found at events such as the Summer Undergraduate Research Symposium, sponsored by CUSE. At the 2011 event, approximately 160 students from across the United States and China who were participating in research at Aquinas College, Saint Mary’s College, the University of Michigan and Notre Dame presented their summer research in science and engineering through oral and poster presentations. In addition to the presentations given at the symposium, several also were broadcast from Beijing, China, by University of Michigan undergraduate researchers.

“Peer review is nice because you’re your own expert in whatever field you are exploring,” said senior Brian Bush, who showcased his work on circadian rhythms of the malaria carrying mosquito Anopheles gambiae. “It’s all about you and your findings.”

“I think the thrill of being able to devote yourself to an unsolved problem in a field of your own choosing - something that is a passion or interest of yours - and the excitement you feel when you start to solve that mystery make research an excellent opportunity to apply scientific knowledge,” Bush said. “I definitely feel that Notre Dame has provided me with support and encouragement to pursue research opportunities during my undergraduate education.”

“You’re your own expert.”

Brian Bush,
Class of 2012

Not surprisingly in this electronic age, students also are going online to share their discoveries. For many undergraduate researchers at Notre Dame, that means a visit to The Hub. Created in 2010 with the slogan “Your academic life @ ND,” the site draws on the lessons of social media to create what essentially is more of an environment than a publication. Anyone with Internet access can view the content. Only students can log on for a deeper experience. They can join or start a discussion, launch a blog or upload samples of work such as research papers, visual art or multimedia presentations, and ask their peers for feedback.

Scientia: Undergraduate Journal for the Sciences

“It’s a living document of all the things you’ve been working on,” says co-editor-in-chief, senior Kristen Adam.

Students also can submit their findings to their own online publications — the Journal of Undergraduate Research and Scientia, Notre Dame’s undergraduate research journal for the sciences. The journal publishes and prints once yearly, and accepts submissions on a rolling basis.

The Road to the Future

Whether finding their way through a labyrinth, smashing atoms or searching for a cure for malaria, undergraduate researchers at Notre Dame are undoubtedly making their mark. Through their real-world experience, they are not only preparing themselves for futures as creators of knowledge, they are already living it, putting their research into action and changing the world.

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