SAS Dean’s Blog

Making it Real

Dennis DeTurck

Dennis DeTurck

Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor and Professor of Mathematics

Every fall, when we welcome the newly admitted freshman class to the College of Arts and Sciences, we emphasize the fact that Penn is classified as an “urban research university.” In other words, research is our middle name. Our outstanding faculty throughout the humanities and the natural and social sciences achieve international renown for their contributions to theoretical and practical knowledge. Meanwhile, our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows work tirelessly with their faculty mentors to join the scholarly ranks.

But in emphasizing this research enterprise to our newest undergraduates, we’re not simply telling them about something that other people are doing. The goal is to draw their attention to the possibility and the imperative that they participate in the University’s mission to expand the boundaries of our knowledge of ourselves, of our relationships with each other, and of the world around us.

In the College, we believe that the value of research can lie in a student's participation in the work itself as much as the product. The experience reinforces and instills mastery of academic skills: how to formulate a question or hypothesis, how to gather evidence, and how to answer that question or test that hypothesis. One of the advantages of being an undergraduate at a major research university is the wide variety of opportunities available for scholarship.

Most people find it easy to imagine undergraduates at work in scientific laboratories in our own science departments or in Penn’s medical and engineering schools. Indeed, many of our students do research in biology, chemistry, psychology, or physics, seeking insights on genetics and genomics, molecular structure, or animal behavior.

However, undergraduate research in the College encompasses a much wider range of activities and domains of study. In disciplines such as English, philosophy, and history, students read original works or the primary literature, and look for new connections and interpretations of these writings. In areas such as anthropology or history of art, students study artifacts, works of art, or ancient languages, gaining insights on earlier civilizations and the lives of those who contributed to them.

A few examples will help give a sense of the intensity and scope of undergraduate research activity throughout the humanities and social sciences.

The Penn Humanities Forum is supporting a dozen juniors and seniors as Mellon Undergraduate Fellows in the Humanities. They are working on projects related to this year’s Forum theme, Peripheries. The projects range from Melany Barr’s analysis of national identity in the works of Henry James and James Joyce to Amalya Lehmann’s study of Rossini’s operatic wit and humor to Michael Morse’s examination of the politics of the restoration of the voting rights of felons.

Penn’s Program on Democracy, Citizenship, and Constitutionalism is supporting the work of 10 undergraduates researching national and international topics ranging from Humna Bhojani’s study of Arabs in East Jerusalem to Stephen Fritz’s examination of the progressive Democratic party in post-World War II South Carolina and Laurel Ma’s work on Zimbabwean national identity.

Research projects can involve creative as well as analytical work. For example, later this month the Theater Arts Program will present Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, which is being directed by Nicole McGarry as part of her senior honors thesis in directing.

Sometimes our science students become our most avid researchers in the humanities. For example, Lindsay Warrenburg, a graduating senior with a double major in music and chemistry is writing a senior thesis on the impact of Nietzsche's writing on Mahler's Third Symphony. According to her research mentor, Emeritus Professor Lawrence Bernstein, she has read and digested hundreds pages of Nietzsche’s writing and completed detailed analyses of several of the six movements of the symphony, besides reading in the literature about it.

Besides producing distinctive research projects, our students learn the importance of communicating their results to others in the field. One way we do this is through our own publications such as the College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal. It is also important for our students to gain experience presenting their work to critical audiences. This April, senior political science majors Maryam Alireza, Andrew Leahey, and Quratal Malik and junior Laura Resnick will present the results of their research projects at the Midwest Political Science Association’s 71st annual conference, one of the largest political science conferences in the nation.

Some College students gravitate toward experiences that combine the theoretical with the practical, either in the United States or abroad. Programs such as Penn in Washington, Penn in Seoul, and the undergraduate internship program of the Center for the Advanced Study of India give our social science undergraduates an opportunity to combine scholarly work with first-hand experience of the political process.

And it is often true that learning about the arts—truly coming to know the importance, value, and potential impact of creative work and ideas—requires students to connect to the world beyond the University, where people work in the realm of practice, where business is relevant, and where businesspeople don't always know how to talk to "the creative people" and vice versa. Our RealArts@PENN program is designed to help some of Penn's most creative students make those connections.

The University’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF) is an invaluable partner in connecting students with research mentors and support. We are also immensely grateful to all of our friends and alumni who, either directly or through some of the programs mentioned above, provide essential support for our talented undergraduate students as they undertake imaginative projects of their own and join us in the scholarly adventure.