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Student research mobility: a little support goes a long way

Research mobility makes for better science; it builds and shares capacity.


Universities play a critical role in contributing to fundamental and applied research, but also in training the next generation of scientists, researchers, educators, and innovators. For STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students, research experiences are an integral part of that training, and offer chances to learn new techniques, train on specialized equipment, and collect data.

Setting the goals and asking questions

Starting in 2017, the faculty of science at the University of Calgary sharpened its focus on international research mobility to strengthen connections and collaborations, and to enhance student experience. The task of determining how to accomplish this goal fell to our International Engagement Committee, consisting of faculty members, graduate and undergraduate students, the faculty’s international coordinator, and a representative from our university’s central international office.

We knew why we wanted to achieve more research mobility. Our experience in hosting students had shown us, over and over, that they brought fresh perspectives and made contributions to our faculty members’ research programs. Now we needed to know how we could increase mobility. Why weren’t more students coming to us? What was keeping our students in Canada? What could we do to help?

Consultation began with our community of students, staff, and faculty. What we heard helped us understand our current context and plan for improvements.

Hearing and identifying needs

Our graduate students understood the value of international research placements for developing skills and professional networking. Master’s students tended to look for research mobility after their first year, while doctoral students preferred travel after candidacy for specialized training or data collection opportunities. Many students had travel support from their supervisors and through institutional programs, but additional financial support was still a priority.

For undergraduate students, timing was key – spring and summer placements supported their degree progress during the regular academic year, but time abroad meant lost opportunities for summer employment. Grants and awards were also prized by students planning later applications to graduate or professional programs. Our graduate students found opportunities through their supervisors, but undergraduate students needed considerably more support in learning who to ask, when to do their time requests, and how to find funding.

Not surprisingly, our faculty wanted administrative support after recruiting students for research placements – inbound or outbound. They recognized the importance of international experiences, often because they had benefited from similar opportunities early in their careers. Time constraints for dealing with the logistics of student research mobility (including managing deadlines, developing application packages, obtaining or creating support letters, etc.,) were frequently a source of frustration and concern.

The answer to our questions was simple: more support was needed.

Small-scale outreach

As we increased support, research mobility increased. Small-scale outreach to faculty through one-on-one and department meetings to describe services and funding opportunities improved perceptions, and eased concerns that students would be prepared for their travel, whether coming to Canada or going abroad.

We put an immediate emphasis on grant and funding proposal support for students, offering application review and feedback from our international coordinator. This service was particularly well-utilized by our graduate students.

Early on, we highlighted the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, which provides funding for short-term research, but also promoted programs like Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute funding, and Emerging Leaders in the Americas to our faculty.

Leveraging connections and network

We also made connections with our central Study Abroad office to identify research exchange opportunities, posting student announcements and getting faculty members with similar teaching or research interests to assist with promotion. We ran workshops for undergraduate students on searching for research placements and introduced the idea of stacking funding sources (i.e., obtaining smaller travel grants that could be stacked with Mitacs funding). Presenters at these workshops included faculty members as well as our local Mitacs business directors. Practical advice from faculty was highly valued by our undergraduate students, especially when they talked about how past experiences connected to their work now.

Another key development was understanding where our faculty had strong or emerging research connections, and encouraging discussions about funding programs with their partners. This included Erasmus+ in Europe, internationalization funding offered by CAPES in Brazil, and others.

Leaning on our institutional network also offered better experiences for student researchers coming to Canada. We worked closely with allied offices across campus, including international student services, enrolment services, and our library and cultural resources team. Another critical contribution were immigration advisors, who helped navigate visa processes.

Results and next steps

The result of these additional supports has been robust student mobility over a five-year period. Key performance metrics included the number of placements and funding received. We began to see patterns in movement, which helped us to understand where these existing research connections might form the basis for closer collaboration with a partner institution.

There’s no denying the professional and academic development that takes place during a research placement. We saw gains in transferable skills – flexibility, adaptability, and students’ confidence in themselves as capable members of a lab group or team. We heard truly inspiring stories of growth and saw our students sharing their experiences with their peers. A critical next step for us will be to explore ways to capture and measure the growth of these skills so that we can better support development and self-reflection during and after research placements.

Scientific discovery doesn’t stop at the border. We know that now, more than ever, international scientific cooperation is the way we collectively move forward to unlock new answers, solve problems, and achieve real, transformational change in the world. Research mobility makes for better science; it builds and shares capacity.

As we collectively look to the next era of scientific discovery, we encourage you to help your students learn, grow, and develop through research mobility – recognizing that your efforts can have deep and lasting impact on individual levels, but also on a much broader scale.

It takes a little more support, but it goes a long, long way.

Heather Clitheroe is the international coordinator for the faculty of science at the University of Calgary.
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