Studying in the shadows Graduate students thrive on research at undergrad-focused institution
Known more for pep rallies than post-docs, Notre Dame has been associated with undergraduate education since its inception.
As a result, graduate research often goes unnoticed.
However, there are nearly 1,500 graduate students on campus working, studying and researching every day. They collect data, write reports and analyze the latest information in their respective academic fields.
While faculty members often are recognized for large research grants and high-profile discoveries, many big-budget research projects are, for the most part, run by graduate students.
"[It's the] grad students who turn the knobs, run the experiments," said James Merz, vice president of Graduate Studies and Research.
Faculty researchers agree.
"I've been blessed with outstanding grad students and post-docs in my lab," said David Hyde, associate professor of biological sciences. "They do the brunt of the work and don't always get the credit for it."
Some graduate students were drawn to Notre Dame by the research opportunities offered here.
"I always wanted to do some molecular biology and there was a lab [performing studies] I was interested in," said Jorge Ganopolsky, a biochemistry student from the University of Buenos Aires.
Ganopolsky is in the Ph.D. program experimenting with blood-clotting agents using molecular genetic techniques in rescuing protein-deficient genetically-engineered lab mice.
These opportunities help more than just the students, according to Hyde, who is conducting research on blindness and retinitus pigmentosa in fruit flies and humans, has three graduate students, two post-doctoral students and two research assistant professors working in his lab throughout the year.
"They're invaluable. [The] work couldn't be done without them," Hyde said.
Total research funding last year was an all-time high $34.1 million. According to Merz, this generates about $6 million for "indirect costs "to the University, including heat, lighting and water. The University put in nearly $3 million for "matching" research funds not gathered from private and federal agencies.
Professors seek research funding mainly through private foundations and federal agencies. The University's largest single research program is the radiation laboratory, which, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, utilizes $4.5 million a year.
Hyde's research – nearly $400,000 in direct costs – currently is funded by four grants.
Graduate students doing research get paid a University-established stipend of $15,000 a year, according to Hyde.
According to medieval studies and philosophy graduate student Mike Waddell, many students doing research receive tuition wavers from the University for their work. Salaries differ between humanities work and scientific research, Waddell said. Humanities students may take home around $507 every two weeks, while science students could get up to $640 bi-weekly.
Waddell has a fellowship, which means his first year of study is free. Later, he will move on to paid dissertation research.
Science fellowships work in nearly the same way, except that students are usually expected to teach during their first year.
Notre Dame's graduate school failed to make the U.S. News and World Report's top 50 in business, engineering, science or Ph. D. programs this year.
That doesn't mean Notre Dame doesn't have good graduate programs in those fields, Merz said.
These rankings, Merz said, include size in their criteria, which works against Notre Dame, with its small programs.
"Size is a factor. We should never be a large research university like Michigan, [or MIT]," he said. "We need to focus in areas where we could be good."
Prestigious rankings are based on a weighted average of specific measures such as reputation, placement success and student selectivity. Scores are tallied from questionnaires sent to officials at schools with graduate study programs.
Merz said he tries for success with science and engineering programs.
"It's our surest approach to renown as a major research university," he said.
One advance in science occurred recently when the University joined an international consortium of universities and a private foundation to build the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT).
The LBT, when it is completed in 2002, will be the most powerful and versatile telescopes in the world, according to Notre Dame Public Relations and Information.
Students will be able to study information gathered from the telescope in classrooms in Nieuwland Science Hall.
"Our involvement will help build a stronger research program for both undergraduate and graduate students," said Jeffrey Kantor, a University vice president and associate provost, in a prepared statement. "It also will help increase our undergraduate science recruitment efforts, provide additional sources for external research funding and give Notre Dame a new level of scientific prestige."
The Big Ten
While many undergraduates may have seen the University's decision to not join the Big Ten as a reaffirmation of sports' independence, the academic ramifications for graduate students were less recognized.
By joining the Big Ten, Notre Dame would have become a member of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation [CIC], an academic consortium of 12 institutions including the Universities of Chicago and Michigan. This merger may not have appealed to many undergraduate students, but graduate students could ultimately have benefited.
The CIC would have opened doors for graduate students to share research ideas and information with other member institutions, as well as gain access to their libraries.
"From a scientific standpoint, I was disappointed," said chemistry graduate student Melanie Peldo, who added that the access to equipment and study reports would have greatly benefited research progress.
Waddell said understands how equipment resources are attractive to students, especially those involved in science programs.
However, for humanities students, who need libraries and professors, Notre Dame currently offers excellent resources, he continued, noting that the Hesburgh Library is the best resource for his field of study.
Even if Notre Dame had joined the CIC, current students would probably would not have felt the effects, said Maria Canalas, president of the Graduate Student Union.
"It wouldn't have affected us at all. It would've affected later students," said the chemistry student.
Canalas noted research-sharing relationships with other institutions can be formed if students "show some guts" and ask to share information.
"The mission of this school is so different than a [Big Ten] school," Canalas said. "Notre Dame remained true to itself."
Researchers understand how Notre Dame's institutional identity factored heavily in the Big Ten decision.
"There are people who fear Notre Dame becoming more visible in research," Merz said. Some believe, he said, that becoming more research-oriented may undermine the University's undergraduate reputation.
There was an overwhelming agreement among some of Merz's colleagues that "going to the Big Ten would've been advantageous for the grad school," he said.
"It would've been a big help in many ways," Merz said. "I was for it."
However, he added, staying independent was "probably the right decision" for the University as a whole. "[But] in a sense, it makes what I'm trying to do a lot harder."
In the wake of the decision, University provost Nathan Hatch initiated eight task forces to investigate research aspects of the University. Merz served on the task force studying the formation of consortia relations with organizations other than the CIC.
Merz said he is optimistic for the graduate school and was quick to note that the Big Ten should no longer be part of the school's focus.
"You just move on," Merz said. "We move on from here."
The graduate school has a 10-year plan, Merz said, to "increase research funding by a factor of two or three.
"If we can do that, we can join the AAU [Association of American Universities]," he said.
Membership in the AAU is one requirement for a school to be considered a major research university.
The school also plans to expand its library collections and build bigger and better laboratories to help attract more and better teachers.
"As we hire good people, more good people will want to come," he said.
All News Stories for Friday, September 17, 1999