New Director of Undergraduate Research Finds Mentorship is the Future of Student Research

Jessica Harrell
Jessica Harrell, Director of Undergraduate Research Support

Undergraduate research doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentionality through dedicated faculty mentors willing to teach and work with students. For those committed to assisting students in becoming researchers, involving them in the research process takes sacrifice and care. When done successfully, the benefits for both faculty and students can be lasting.

This is the picture that Academic Dean Sarah Russell and the newly named Director of Undergraduate Research Support, Jessica Harrell, model as they work together to reimagine Duke’s Undergraduate Research Support Office.

Established in 1991 by Mary Nijhout the Undergraduate Research Support Office serves as a place to gather resources and grant opportunities for undergraduates. Since its creation, undergraduate research has evolved and outgrown its initial understanding as something mainly for the sciences and for those on a track towards a PhD, but as something that holds meaningful value for all undergraduates, regardless of a student’s major or future plans. 

“In recent years, there’s been a much greater understanding in higher education that research is a high impact practice,” explained Sarah Russell, who directed URS prior to shifting into the full-time role of academic dean. “It’s one of the best ways for undergraduates in all fields, at all levels, to develop really important skills and knowledge.”

With support from Dean Martin Smith and Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, undergrads now have a full-time director helping them engage with research resources. Jessica Harrell first joined Duke in 2020 as a director of academic engagement before taking on the role as director of URS last month. Harrell is focused on the student experience and helping undergraduates thrive, making it her mission as director to expand student opportunities and help them understand the multitude of resources available to them.

“As a first-generation college student myself, I was really impacted by those who helped me in this journey, so I want to be here at a place where I’m in a position to do the same for other students,” she said.

Research support for undergraduates is an area of potential growth for Duke, and as Harrell notes, there is more that can be done to help both students and faculty understand the value of research experiences and the resources that exist to make those experiences happen at all stages of the process. In an interview with Russell and Harrell, they discussed the decision to change the program’s leadership, Harrell’s plans for increasing URS’s presence on campus, and how to continue connecting students to research and grant opportunities.

Sarah Russell (left) and Jessica Harrell (right) worked together to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in the Office of Undergraduate Research Support.
Sarah Russell (left) and Jessica Harrell (right) worked together to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in the Undergraduate Research Support Office.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did the shift to a full-time director come about?

Russell: I’ve been in the role for five years, but one of the tricky pieces of the way the role was constructed prior to this was that my job was divided halftime as director of Undergraduate Research and halftime as a Trinity academic dean. The nice thing about converting this to a full-time job, is the director can now be visible and active in promoting and developing important undergraduate research.

Harrell: I started here at Duke three years ago in the role of the DAE for natural and quantitative sciences and was immediately connected with Sarah [Russell] to help support students who wanted to engage in co-curricular opportunities in the natural and quantitative sciences, which is often research-based. Many students do engage in STEM research at a higher percentage than the social sciences and humanities, so part of my goal now is to expand what URS can provide in terms of support to students in all disciplines. I come at it from my STEM background and my STEM lens, so now I’m learning and thinking about how to expand support for students in the social sciences and humanities, and Sarah, being a historian, is actually a great partner in this.

Why do you think STEM research has had a higher participation rate historically than humanities and social sciences?

Harrell: Part of the challenge is from a funding perspective, but I also think how research is done in the disciplines is different. What that mentor-mentee relationship looks like in the natural sciences is very different than what it looks like in the social sciences and humanities. In a science research group, an undergraduate is often walking into a research lab setting where there are plenty of people who can provide guidance and support, what we call bench mentors, and these are often PhD graduate students or postdocs. The mentoring relationship on the social sciences and humanities side tends to be much more individual one-on-one mentoring. It can take a lot of time and effort to help students build the skills to help them be successful in doing research in those areas.

Russell: There is a little bit of a difficulty in how you cultivate a research experience for an undergrad in a humanities space that works well for both [faculty and student]. The creation of story+ is a deliberate effort to shape an experience of humanities research that is not narrowly just one-on-one. I think that's an example of thinking about how to do this differently.

What are you hoping to bring to the office of director, and what resources are you planning to expand for students?

Harrell: My vision is to encourage and facilitate both students and faculty to engage in meaningful research through mentor-mentee relationships, training, programming and funding. From my own background, I have experience facilitating workshops for faculty in approaching their mentoring practices, but I also have experience facilitating these types of workshops for students and thinking about how to mentor up and how to get the most out of their mentoring relationship. I want to be able to bring some of that into this role in terms of the support that I provide to both students and faculty.

Also, because this is my full-time job, I can expand the programming, workshops and support that we provide for students. Already this semester, we've done a series of workshops on helping students apply for summer research programs.

A large part of the work of undergraduate resources involves assembling financial resources and making those grants and resources known to students. Why do you think this role is so important?

Harrell: I think this speaks to an equity issue. I want all students to be able to access research opportunities, and not to favor students who have the means to volunteer or do it without pay. At a place like Duke, we can hopefully provide opportunities for every student who wants to do research to have the financial backing that supports their curiosity.

Why is it so important to you to work with undergraduates?

Harrell: If I could articulate my dream job, this is it. I'm excited to be in a place where I have the opportunity to have an impact on undergraduates getting involved in research experiences. I get a lot of personal and professional satisfaction from seeing students realize there are opportunities to do the things they're excited about. When I see their successes and watch them start on their own journeys, it’s really meaningful to me.