Peter Civetta

Peter Civetta leads Northwestern's Office of Undergraduate Research at a time of explosive growth in opportunities for students. Photo by Jim Prisching

How can we boost memory during sleep? Is there a way to 3-D print clean energy tools? What would it take to make theater more inviting to children with special needs? These are among the questions tackled in recent undergraduate research projects at Northwestern.


The University has expanded undergraduate research in recent years to give more students the chance to test their problem-solving skills in the real world. In fact, students received almost $1 million in funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) last year compared to $200,000 a decade ago, before the office existed.

Traditionally, most undergraduate research has occurred in science labs where the infrastructure is already in place. But today’s funding boost reflects Northwestern’s mission to fund projects relevant to whatever subject area a student finds most interesting and relevant.

“This summer we funded a project in New York City for a student who wants to direct musical theater on Broadway,” said Peter Civetta, director of OUR. “There is no curriculum for that, so the student tapped the vast Northwestern alumni network and talked to people with that job title to create a resource for others with similar ambitions. We want every student to know that these opportunities exist.”

Once reserved for faculty and graduate students, research opportunities have changed the nature of the college experience by providing a “counterbalance,” as Civetta puts it, to the short bursts of learning that happen day-by-day throughout the year.

“We challenge students to immerse themselves in a singular question that stirs their passions and then to dig deeper for answers than they ever could in class,” Civetta said. “They have to think and collaborate in new ways in order to add meaningful knowledge to the world.”

The Office of Undergraduate Research provided funding for more than 400 student projects last year in the form of academic year and summer research, language immersion, conference travel and faculty research assistance.

The growth in funding over the past decade also reflects a key pillar of Northwestern Will, the University’s strategic plan, which highlights student learning integrated with experiences beyond the classroom.

In the last of a series of profiles exploring undergraduate research at Northwestern, Civetta talks to Northwestern News about the program. See the full story here.