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The Workday series: student ambassadors transforming research

| Staff Writer

When asked to name one thing about the WashU Research Ambassador Program (WRAP) that he’s proud of, senior Nash Overfield only has to go back 10 minutes. He talks about working with a student on an application essay for STEM research funding: combing through, telling the student what worked and what did not, formulating it into something a potential decision-maker might like to read. His experience writing these essays has taught him how to navigate the research process, and his role as a WRAPer has allowed him to impart these things to help people find and seize opportunities for research. 

WRAP panelists answering questions from undergraduate students (Courtesy of Angela Fink)

WRAP (WashU Research Ambassador Program) hasn’t been around long, but it has been making a difference already. It launched in the Fall 2023 Semester as a student-operated companion to the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), with the goal of improving student access to research as well as general awareness. It functions as an interface through which students can talk to other students, bringing the concept of research out of nebulous, highly academic territory and into something more visible and easily understood. In addition, it provides feedback to the OUR based on student experiences and opinions. The program is operated by WRAPers: research ambassadors who are themselves undergraduate students with substantial experience in research. 

There are currently seven WRAPers, selected from an initial pool of 55 applicants, spanning a wide range of disciplines. Some work in the humanities, some in STEM, and some in social sciences. They meet with students in weekly office hours to orient any research questions or concerns they might have, whether it’s finding an opportunity for research, searching for grants or programs, or directing them toward a faculty member in a given field who might be interested in advising. But what truly makes the program run is the passion the WRAPers have for research and their enthusiasm for broadening the horizons of what people believe it can be. 

Angela Fink, the OUR’s Program Manager, cites their drive and energy as the biggest factors to WRAP’s ability to reach and help people, mentioning not just the newfound availability of research-oriented office hours but full-blown events — such as the recent summer research fair — as outgrowths of a genuine desire to increase the profile of research at WashU. 

That notion of expanding awareness is integral to what the program aims to do. In WRAP’s view, not enough undergraduates understand how research functions, how available it is to them, or even, in many cases, what it is. For Overfield, there is an especially diminished level of awareness for humanities research; in his view, many people tend to view research as something that is inherently STEM-oriented, but humanities research provides its own avenues with their own individually-driven benefits. According to Overfield, it’s a more open type of research that marks just one of many ways in which misconceptions drive approaches to the discipline: in this instance, people might not even consider research a possibility because they don’t think it can be done within their field. That’s why everyone involved with WRAP takes so much pride in their events and in the increased number of fellowship applications that they’ve seen. 

“It’s trial and error,” Overfield said. “And most of it seems to be working.” 

For the WRAPers, the broader rise in awareness is an amazing development that indicates rapid success for the program. But they remain personally fulfilled to an immense degree by the simple opportunity to work with people. Overfield has found his greatest joy in “[being] able to sit down with people, and really help make a visible, tangible difference…to be able to help people and make research more attainable for people at WashU.”

Student research ambassador Nash Overfield chats with students about opportunities for undergraduate research (Courtesy of Angela Fink)

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