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Travel fund supports undergraduate student research

LEARNING BY DOING: Student Sandra Romain is pictured in a DNA lab where she took a three-week training course, thanks to the Student Academic Travel Fund set up at U of T Scarborough. (Photo by Neil Esau.)

by Aurora Herrera

A science student at U of T Scarborough was desperate to find a way to afford an exciting training program in her field that was taking place in northern Ontario.

Luckily, a new fund supplemented her finances and made it possible for Sandra Romain to attend an intense, three-week internship training course on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay.

She is just one of the students who has benefited from the Student Academic Travel Fund. The fund was established in 2007 by the Office of Student Affairs at U of T Scarborough to give financial support to students interested in journeying to academic conferences and meetings or pursuing academic research activities.

Staff members say the fund is designed to support academic endeavors and to enhance the undergraduate student experience on campus. Dollars for this initiative come from the 2007-2008 Student Experience Fund, a pot of university money earmarked for projects and activities that enhance the student experience.

Thanks to the fund, Romain was able to pursue the DNA training she sought so eagerly. She learned about the archeological, forensic, zoological, and epidemiological aspects of DNA, as well as how to physically sample, amplify and interpret characteristics of that famed double helix that contains the building blocks of life.

Romain is going into fourth year and is finishing up her degree with a specialist in medical anthropology, a major in health studies and a minor in biology. During the course at Lakehead University in May, she learned how to extract human DNA through several different techniques.

Participants took samples of their blood, inner cheek swabs, and hair in order to develop their own unique Short Tandem Repeat (STR) profiles, similar to those used in DNA tests for criminal cases. Romain even used the profile to determine her personal haplotype, an indicator of her geographical origins.

Romain was one of only two U of T undergraduates in the course, which was three-quarters filled by graduate students. This type of specific research is not typically done by students in the undergraduate program, she said.

“Without the assistance of the Academic Travel Fund, it would not have been financially possible for me to attend,” she said. “It is a fabulous opportunity for students to attend professional activities such as conferences, or to get a feel for the possibilities that await them if they are interested in a particular field or if they wish to pursue academic and professional research in that field.”

A selection committee reviews applications for the fund four times a year. Committee members include administrators from Student Affairs such as the Dean of Student Affairs, Vice-Dean of Academics, and Director of Student Life, as well as a student leader -- the Vice-President of Academics of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU). The Office of Student Affairs maintains the responsibility of administering the fund.

According to Tom Nowers, the Dean of Student Affairs, a major aim of the fund is to provide undergraduates with the kinds of research travel experiences usually reserved for graduate students.

“Undergraduates normally do not get the opportunity to do extensive research in their field or attend professional conferences in the same way that graduate students do,” he said. “We hope that this fund can help them test their initiative and preview their aspirations.”

Romain also said that even if students attend a conference and then decide not to pursue research in that field, the experience is still beneficial. It is better for them to learn more about the field earlier, before applying to graduate school and continuing in their career.

Émanuèle Lapierre-Fortin, a recent graduate of the International Development Studies (IDS) program, was also a recipient of travel funds. When she was a student, she requested funds to cover her costs of filming a documentary on the African cotton trade. She had already spent one year in the African country of Burkina Faso filming independently, and the travel fund enabled her to pursue interviews with experts in the United States and Canada.

“The grant allowed me to meet and interact with seven prominent fair trade scholars from Washington to the U.S. mid-west and all the way to Colorado,” she said. “It contributed enormously to my learning, my honors thesis, and my documentary film project, Threads of Wrath.”

For the 2007-08 time period, the fund totaled $20,000, and the committee disbursed all of the funds. In fact, demand for funding was so high that the office of the Dean of Student Affairs  stepped in to cover an additional $6,000 of requests to fund various travel proposals.

The popularity of the travel fund has led to an increase in budget. The Office of Student Affairs has secured $40,000 for the fund in the upcoming school year, according to officials. “This is possibly the only undergraduate travel program of its kind in Ontario,” Nowers said. “I have not heard of anything like it anywhere else.”

To apply to the fund, students must provide a detailed spending plan, their transcripts, a faculty letter of support and program details, as well as a personal letter explaining their interest, need and evidence of how the opportunity will both further their academic career and contribute back to U of T Scarborough.

Lapierre-Fortin said that she was pleased with the reception she got during the application process. “Mr. Nowers gave me the opportunity to explain my project in person, given that the committee didn't really know what to do with my application, since the fund was set up for things like academic conferences,” she said. “I really appreciated that flexibility. It proved that the committee was committed to expanding the students' learning.”

Recipients of the fund are also encouraged to practice service learning -- defined as learning by doing -- in order to enhance their academic knowledge. Students are encouraged to write a paper or host a seminar after they return from their trip to relay their experiences and new knowledge to the U of T Scarborough student body. In this way, others can benefit from an individual student’s experience.

For more information on the Student Academic Travel Fund please visit,

Aurora Herrera is a fourth-year student in the journalism program offered by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College. She served as an intern in the office of marketing and communications.

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