At Trinity University, one of the most important questions our undergraduate researchers ask has nothing to do with the structure of brain cells, complex sociological shifts, or ancient literature.
It’s a much more personal one:
Do I belong here?
Yes, Trinity offers chances to innovate and make exciting new discoveries across the fields of STEM, the social sciences and the Humanities, all bolstered by incredible sources of academic and financial support, along with state-of-the-art facilities and experiential opportunities. But the true story of undergraduate research at a small, liberal arts institution such as Trinity is the story of students who’ve made, perhaps, the most important breakthrough one can make: knowing that they absolutely do belong.
“In the enterprise of learning and science, when our students start conducting research, they start to recognize, ‘hey, this is interesting, this is exciting, I can do this,” says biology professor David Ribble, associate vice president for budget and research in Academic Affairs. “Research gives them a sense of belonging that’s connected to something they're interested in.”
It’s no surprise, then, to see that Trinity students regularly participate in undergraduate research during their time at school, especially considering the depth of opportunities for them. This research is turning heads on a national stage, where Trinity is now nationally ranked by the U.S. News & World Report as No. 53 in its Undergraduate Research and Creative Projects category.
But how does University ensure these opportunities are inclusive, and spread across all disciplines? First, Trinity-sponsored research on campus is fully funded, with awards and stipends ranging from $1,000 to $4,500 or more.
And while many academic departments (especially in STEM) offer departmental research opportunities, Trinity offers a diverse array of programs that span multiple academic disciplines and reach students of all backgrounds. There’s the Mellon Initiative, which promotes undergraduate research in the arts and humanities; Murchison Fellowships, which help build faculty-student teams in all disciplines; and the McNair Scholars program, which helps first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented college students connect with research opportunities and prepare for graduate school.
And the excitement doesn’t stop in the spring: summer is a hotbed of activity, with many of our researchers pursuing resources such as the Mellon Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program, an outgrowth of the Mellon Initiative which funds research and travel and provides housing.
And, perhaps most importantly of all, Trinity students work with faculty, not for them. These faculty fully focus on students, and don’t rely on graduate students to run their labs.
What sets Trinity apart from other similar small liberal arts schools is that we don’t just rely on these big-time institutional resources we just listed: our faculty bring home elite external opportunities as well, across just about every discipline.
“We also want our faculty applying for competitive grants, because that keeps our program cutting-edge,” Ribble says. “ Trinity faculty come in with the desire to get this recognition. And quite frankly, it makes the research better when they are also getting external grants.”
Being able to connect and work in partnership with elite faculty is a crucial part of building that sense of belonging at Trinity, according to Ribble. “Trinity students coming in to work with faculty is part of our DNA,” Ribble says. “And we can say that across all disciplines.”
Engineering Science professor Dany Munoz-Pinto creates a sense of belonging in his lab by bringing multiple disciplines together.
Take Carson Koch ’22, for example. A neuroscience major on the pre-med track, Koch worked alongside two engineering majors Anna Gonzalez ’23 and Meagan McKee ’24 to help their lab build central nervous system tissue from scratch as part of an ongoing effort to understand key elements of Alzheimer’s disease.
Working with two engineering science students, Gonzalez and McKee, has also given Koch a fresh perspective. “It is really cool to get out of the pre-med shell and have these experiences working with engineers that I might not have had otherwise,” Koch says.
Speaking of breaking out of a shell: McKee started her first year entirely online due to the coronavirus pandemic, so she is thrilled to be working in the same space as the rest of her lab. “This team has been one of the first groups I have gotten to meet in person,” she says.
“It’s been great hearing Carson tell us all about the neuroscience involved in this research, while Megan and I have taken about one biology class,” Gonzalez adds. “This has been such a great experience for what I want to do in the future—research and development in biomedical engineering. That is the biggest thing for me.”
In the fields of sociology and communication, it’s fitting that a research project thrives through building a team of professors and students that enjoy being together.
Take an ongoing project that’s examining the effects of shelter-in-place orders on transgernder and non-binary people, led by communication professor Althea Delwiche, Ph.D., sociology and anthropology professor Amy Stone, Ph.D., and library liaison and associate professor Alexandra Gallin-Parisi, MSLS.
Their student team of Cutter Canada '24, Gwen McCrary '23, Megan McGuire '23, and Lauren Stevens '24 all met as part of the aforementioned SURF program, which comes with a $4,200 stipend, free housing, and a travel and supplies budget—but also with an intense 10-week work period.
Canada, whose focus zeroed in on search algorithm patterns concerning Trans men and Trans women on social media platform TikTok, joined the group in conducting literary analysis, collecting journal articles and popular press articles, cross-referencing for different topics related to trans and non-binary topics, all while completing annotations for this literary review and literary analysis, and conducting interviews through a survey involving more than a thousand trans and non-binary participants.
Dealing with this workload can be tough for any undergraduate researcher. That’s why the team gratefully acknowledges the close support they’ve gotten from each of their faculty mentors. “Our faculty have been really awesome,” he says. “It’s actually just fun to get to meet with them and talk about our experiences.”
That camaraderie isn’t just a nice-to-have: it’s an essential component to undergraduate research at Trinity, where faculty place just as much emphasis on teaching through research as they would with publishing or production. “When we actually enjoy meeting every day, it means you’re having a great experience working on stuff together,” Cutter says.
This camaraderie isn’t a short-term thing, either. Across the disciplines of the Humanities, faculty are finding ways to keep researchers engaged throughout their time at Trinity.
Matilda Krell '23 has worked with the Department of Religion in the Roman World Lab. Founded by professor Rubén Dupertuis, Ph.D., religion department chair, the RWL represents a close-knit community of students and faculty who get to focus for multiple semesters on the intricate details of religious and non-religious writings from the Roman period.
Dupertuis says the longer-term approach of the Roman World Lab draws on research models more typically associated with STEM, where students stay on with their professors across multiple projects, building working partnerships and allowing for more transformational discovery. Now, students such as Krell get to benefit from the type of long-term, close mentorship, too.
“When I received an email from Dr. Dupertuis in early fall of my junior year asking me to join the lab, I was surprised,” Krell recalls. “I was only a religion minor at that point, and I definitely did not feel qualified to participate in a professor’s research, especially not in a lab with projects that had been around for half a decade.”
But once Krell got to work, this imposter syndrome was ancient history.
She got to work analyzing various pieces of early Christian artwork, notably on “Noah in the Ark,” a recurring set of symbols found in the Roman catacomb of Marcellinus and Peter. “The Roman World Lab was my first experience in any lab, and it has given me writing, editing, and research experience as well as the opportunity to contribute to ongoing projects and work with like-minded students,” Krell explains. “I even got to publish my own article—I just finished one at the end of this past semester!—I’m excited to eventually see my name on a piece of work available to the public.”
Trinity’s future of belonging
Ribble notes that Trinity is itself rooted firmly in a sense of belonging to the San Antonio and South Texas communities in which it sits.
“We are in a very interesting city that provides opportunities to work with both industry and med schools, collaborate with other universities, to serve with nonprofits and things of that sort,” Ribble notes. “We have connections in our community, I think, far greater than some of our peers do to theirs.”
And the future is only going to see more people feeling like they belong at Trinity, Ribble says.
Trinity is now part of a National Science Foundation grant that’s awarded four San Antonio universities nearly $2.5 million to increase the number of historically underrepresented students and those from lower-income backgrounds obtaining bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields. This grant will include research opportunities that not only extend through all four semesters, but also some that actually start before school even begins.
This comes alongside a recent grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), designed to make its first- and second-year STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses more inclusive to all students
“We’re not just getting better at bringing students here, but we’re focusing on the retention of students,” Ribble says. “Research creates a sense of belonging. That belonging makes our students successful. And that success makes them want to be here.”