Why wait for grad school?

A growing number of McGill undergrads are getting the chance to work on major research projects

Poke your head into a McGill research lab – particularly in the summer – and you might walk away thinking that some of those graduate students look awfully young. There is a reason for that. They probably aren’t graduate students.

In recent years, undergraduates at McGill have had access to a growing number of opportunities to dive into serious research work. Those opportunities will continue to expand, says Deputy Provost (Student Life & Learning) Fabrice Labeau.

“We pride ourselves on being a research-intensive and student-centred university, in which teaching and learning is informed by the latest research,” says Labeau. “One of the key choices that McGill has made is to focus on having our professors, who are star researchers, [teach] in the classroom.”

Undergraduates with an interest in experiencing research for themselves should have the opportunity to flourish in such an environment, reasons Labeau. McGill has an array of programs designed to promote undergraduate research and these programs “allow students to apply their knowledge to real, current and cutting-edge research questions and problems.”

Civil engineering student Amara Regehr took part in the Faculty of Engineering’s Summer Undergraduate Research in Engineering (SURE) SURE program last summer, working on a project that measured gas emissions from abandoned oil and gas wells in British Columbia. Her supervisor was assistant professor of civil engineering Mary Kang. Regehr worked closely with Kang on the planning for the project, on the data collection in the field, and on the data analysis.

Once in Fort St. John, B.C., (Regehr booked the flights and hotel, too), she and Kang drove around to examine sites. Because the wells were no longer in use, they should have been capped and buried quickly. But many were just abandoned and had been leaking gases like methane for years. “Companies don’t necessarily feel obliged to actually follow the protocol,” Regehr says.

She has returned this summer to work on an extension of last year’s project, and will also work with Kang in the fall on an undergraduate research project. “SURE is a really great program,” Regehr says.

“Being able to learn outside the classroom is a wonderful thing,” says Chidinma Offoh-Robert, Director of Administration for the Faculty of Engineering.

Offoh-Robert says the SURE program often allows students to try their hand at something new. “You might see a student from mechanical engineering do a SURE [project] in electrical, or an architecture student who does one in civil. It allows our students to cross boundaries.”

Like the Faculty of Science’s Science Undergraduate Research Awards (SURA), the Faculty of Medicine’s Global Health Scholars program, and the Arts Undergraduate Research Internship Award (ARIA), the SURE program pays undergraduate participants for their work. The programs all benefit from the support of generous donors. And all four programs include major wrap-up events with research posters summarizing the projects that the students worked on.

Looking back at her SURE experience, Amara Regehr says the chance to get involved in research was eye-opening.

“You see the university as not just your classes, but as the research university that it is.”

PHOTO: Civil engineering student Amara Regehr (Credit: Alex Tran).