COLUMN: Building our competitive edge
Student research is an integral part of the university experience in Canada, although it is often put on the back burner when preparing students for the conventional career paths. Exposing students to the joy of discovery must begin at the undergraduate level.
Researching in labs, conducting field work, and exploring the unknown – these are the ideas often associated with university researchers. But although they contribute so greatly to Canadian society, researchers are often the unsung heroes in a fast-paced world where gratification must come quickly and spending years on a research project may be undesirable.
It is no surprise then that undergraduate research is often the last thing on a student’s mind. Many undergraduate research awards and grants simply go unclaimed each year, despite the talent of our students.
As a student, I have observed that researchers are often unable to truly integrate their own research into the material that they teach. Conferences and research presentation sessions alone cannot interest students. We must frame research as not just limited to the confines of a lab, but directly related to the student’s field of study.
Simply reading about past researchers in textbooks will not advance our society. Larry Rosenstock, the CEO of an experiential education-based high school in San Diego, says that: “Memorizing 500 biology words makes people think that they don’t want to be biologists. Behaving like a biologist does.”
What we must show students is that research is not a mundane activity, but one that yields true benefits. If we are to create a generation of students who continue the legacy of Canadians like Frederick Banting, who discovered insulin, we must encourage research at the early post-secondary level.
It is vital that we expose students early to the fact that research conducted in the lab does not have to remain limited to an honour’s thesis or academic project, but can be converted into an entrepreneurial venture. One only needs to look at universities like the University of Waterloo or Simon Fraser University to see the effects that marrying entrepreneurship and research can have.
The blurring line between research and entrepreneurship will certainly encourage more students to take up this field in the coming years. My personal belief has always been that if there are two systems in this world that advance society, they are entrepreneurship and research. The recent debut of the Papertab at the Consumer Electronics Show, created by researchers at Queen’s University Human Media Lab, is a testament to the power of research.
Redefining the definition of research will not only involve better promotion, but also a change in the way we imagine it. Often, it is associated just with the hard sciences. In reality, it plays a part in every faculty.
Interdisciplinary projects must also play a stronger role in the academic environment. The cookie-cutter approach to providing undergraduates with research positions simply will not appeal to those looking to combine knowledge from a diverse set of fields.
Building and fostering a research environment in Canada requires the efforts of both universities and the public.
In fact, it is time for us to nationally recognize the next generation of bright innovators. An excellent initiative by the Wilfred Laurier Graduate Student Association is currently recognizing research students in that university. However, universities throughout Canada need to collectively recognize student researchers through a national research week. Let’s have a dialogue on the way we recognize the contributions of researchers, while paving a path for future innovators.
Japreet Lehal is a student at Simon Fraser University Surrey. He writes regularly for The Leader.