Tufts Institute of the Environment fosters student research partnerships across schools
by Rachel Clarke, A15
The Tufts Institute of the Environment (TIE) launched the Research Opportunities for Graduate and Undergraduate Education (ROGUE) program last year to promote collaboration between graduate and undergraduate students at Tufts. ROGUE helps to connect graduate students who seek research assistance with undergraduates who want to gain research experience.
Undergraduates in both the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering have become increasingly interested in environmental research, says TIE Program Director Nolan Nicaise. In the past, TIE connected undergraduates with graduate student mentors on a case-by-case basis. The ROGUE program has formalized the process and made it easier for research teams to connect via a website where graduate students can post research assistant positions to which undergraduates can apply. "The process is pretty independent," says Nicaise. "We want them to a find a fit that is best for their specific research."
All ROGUE research projects have an environmental focus, although the participating students represent a variety of schools and majors at Tufts. Yirat Nieves, A15, who studies Spanish and community health, discovered the ROGUE program when Laura Kuhl, a Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy student, needed a Spanish-speaking research assistant for her study of technology transfer and innovation for climate adaptation in agriculture. Nieves says her work with Kuhl has helped develop her Spanish language skills, as she spends most of her time transcribing interviews that Kuhl conducted with Honduran farmers about their farming techniques. Nieves believes that her research assistant work has given her more insight into a conversational dialect of Spanish used by these farmers—one that is not typically studied in an academic setting. The experience has other benefits for Nieves as well. "It's been valuable to work with a graduate student, to be exposed to graduate work, and get a glimpse into the process of writing a dissertation," explains Nieves, who hopes to go to graduate school herself.
Political science major Melanie Goldberg, A16, has also assisted Kuhl in tracing the ways that technology and innovation are being incorporated into adaptation projects. Over the summer, Goldberg analyzed development proposals for projects working on agricultural adaptation, coding them for references to technology, technology transfer, and innovation. Goldberg says her research with Kuhl gave her valuable knowledge about how aid organizations such as the World Bank are incorporating climate change into proposals and programs in Central America and East Africa. "Shifts in our climate will have widespread effects on agriculture, especially in vulnerable developing countries," says Goldberg. "It is so important to begin evaluating how we can build up infrastructure to equip these nations, many of which contributed very little to the changes in our atmosphere."
Emily Nixon, A15, collecting data
at Harvest Health Co-operative
Kuhl says it is extremely helpful to have two undergraduates work with her. "There's a huge demand both for graduate students seeking research assistants and for undergraduates seeking research opportunities," says Kuhl. Although the ROGUE program is still young, Kuhl hopes that more undergraduate and graduate students will take advantage of it in the future. She believes there is a need for similar programs in other disciplines beyond environmental studies. "There are graduate students working on research in many disciples who would surely appreciate the help from undergraduates seeking research experiences," says Kuhl.
Jamie Picardy, a doctoral student in the Agriculture, Food, and Environment program at Tufts Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, says that with the support of research assistant, Emily Nixon, A15, she expanded the primary data collection for her dissertation, which focuses on production and consumption of regionally-raised meat. Picardy and Nixon collected data from 350 customers shopping at specialty retail markets in greater Boston about purchase practices, preferences for animal production, labeling knowledge and willingness-to-pay for production characteristics.
In addition to their academic partnership, Picardy has also been acting as a personal mentor to Nixon, an economics and anthropology major. "Emily's interest in sustainable agriculture and her knowledge of economics strongly contributed to the success of this TIE research assistantship," says Picardy. "This fall, we will be analyzing the data together, and discussing the results. I believe that we make a great team."
The students involved with ROGUE believe the program offers tremendous benefits to those interested in environmental research. ROGUE now has five teams working on varied research projects.
Laura Corlin, a master's degree candidate in environmental health, works with undergraduates Cara Goodman, E15, and Joanna Stowell, E15, on air pollution research related to the Boston Puerto Rican Health Study. Nicole Tichenor, a doctoral candidate at The Friedman School, works with political science major Samuel Williams, A16, on a project related to the environmental impacts of beef production in the United States.
Nicaise looks forward to maximizing the ROGUE program's potential. He hopes that eventually all ROGUE undergraduate research assistants will be compensated for their work, and to increase outreach efforts to involve more students. "ROGUE has a lot of potential for a program that is only one year old," says Nicaise.