The Freshman Research Institute

VCU Honors College program offers incoming freshman an introduction to undergraduate research

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In mid-August, freshman Michael DiGiacomo arrived on the Virginia Commonwealth University campus eager to catch a glimpse of what a future in research could look like.

For one week, just before the new school year started, DiGiacomo and 20 other new honors students had the unique opportunity to participate in the Freshman Research Institute. The VCU Honors College program, now in its eighth year, is designed to introduce incoming freshmen to undergraduate research at VCU.

As a student with an undeclared major, DiGiacomo had hoped the Freshman Research Institute could open his eyes to a field of study with fascinating research opportunities.

He got that, and more.

“Before attending the Freshman Research Institute, I really had no concept of how important and simple it is to get involved with research as an undergraduate student,” said DiGiacomo, a native of Stafford, Virginia.

“I now know how integral it is to the educational experience that VCU offers. My favorite part of the institute was definitely seeing all of the facilities the school has to offer. I know many other students do not get to do that in the very beginning of their academic career.”

During the week-long program, DiGiacomo and his fellow students toured the medical campus and visited the Life Sciences laboratories and the da Vinci Center, in addition to field trips around Richmond. Additionally, there were opportunities to visit the Cabell Library, where students learned how to locate scholarly articles.

DiGiacomo added that the firsthand experiences — meeting with faculty and student researchers — stuck with him, and he described them as “fun and interesting.” Both faculty and student researchers took the Freshman Research Institute participants through their lab spaces, explained research projects and shared information about their field of expertise.

“We want students to walk away with an understanding of what undergraduate research is at VCU, and learn how they can become involved,” said Jacqueline Smith-Mason, Ph.D., assistant dean for the Honors College at VCU, who serves as the program director for the Freshman Research Institute. 

“We also want to help these students to become acclimated to the university as they transition in … and make some lasting friendships along the way,” she said.

Smith-Mason said some students had previous exposure to research, while for others, this was the first time. Students must apply to be admitted to the program and it is open to all majors.

“This program would not be possible without the amazing faculty we have here,” said Smith-Mason. “They are willing to do this right before the school year starts, and they really give the students an engaging experience.”

Although DiGiacomo is not set on a specific discipline yet, he said that his participation in the Freshman Research Institute has helped narrow his interests.

“Overall, I feel very prepared and comfortable with approaching faculty if I am seeking opportunities or direction for research experience,” he said. 

“The information learned in a classroom may certainly be stimulating and interesting, but getting to apply that knowledge and information in a real-life situation where you can solve problems and develop new knowledge is invaluable to me.” 


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