Helping guide a thousand Magellan voyages

“Miserable.” That’s one word Julie Morris uses to describe her undergraduate research experience in the 1990s. She has a handful of synonyms she uses, too.

But reflecting on the experience, Morris says it was an important lesson, one of many contributing to her unique effectiveness helping students through their first exposure to serious research.

Morris has served in the University of South Carolina’s Office of Undergraduate Research since it was organized in 2004. The Magellan Scholar program was established a year later and will award its 1,000th grant this spring.

The Magellan Scholar program is open to all students at USC. Financial support, up to $3,000, is provided for research project proposals that are selected in a competitive review process.

The grants are awarded for scholarly endeavors in every discipline. Past scholars include Kate McKinney in opera direction, Kevin General in environmental health, Charlotte Eckmann in marine biology, Carl Brzorad in Czech history and Leila Heidari in community health outreach.

Morris has been there every step of the way, using all her experiences – good and bad – to contribute to the scholarly enterprise at the university. We talked to her a little about her own research experiences and how the Magellan programs have grown over the years.

Tell us about your own foray into undergraduate research.

My undergraduate research experience taught me what I absolutely did not want to do once I graduated. I was very much into the sciences. My goal had always been genetic research, and so I was engaged in genetic research as an undergrad and realized that the lab environment, while I really enjoyed it, was not the best fit for me.

This is a perfect example of one of the reasons we encourage students to get involved in undergraduate research. We talk about how research can be a great way for students to find out for sure what they want to do when they graduate.

How have faculty contributed to undergraduate research opportunities?

Our faculty really believe in undergraduate research as an incredible learning experience for students. They are the ones that are there day-to-day with our students, teaching them the techniques, the knowledge, what they need to do to be successful. It’s our faculty that truly make this program successful. 

Explain the apprenticeship approach to undergraduate research.

At the university, we have the class setting, which is multiple students with one teacher, one professor. There is a different mentality when you get into a one-on-one situation between an expert in the field and a novice in the field. It’s that apprenticeship model where the faculty member says, “Here, this is what you need to know, this is how you can succeed if you really want to do this for the rest of your life.”

I think it is that unique experience, the give-and-take that makes a student say, “Wow, this is amazing! This is what I really want to do!” Also, I see that pride in the faculty as their student gets it. I think that’s really the key to a really successful undergraduate experience is that apprenticeship, that mentoring process.” 

What do you like most about your role director of the Office of Undergraduate Research?

I love this job, I really do. I like that I get to hear all of the amazing things that happen across the university. This office is in a unique position because it does serve all of the campuses and it serves all of the disciplines, and so I get to hear the amazing things that happen in art and theatre and music as well as engineering, sciences, medicine. I get to hear what’s happening in Lancaster, in Salkehatchie, in Beaufort. I get to meet people all over campus, all over all campuses.

I get to talk with individual students and see that passion, that light, as they discover some amazing new thing that they didn’t know before.

Learn more

Visit the Office of Undergraduate Research website to learn more about the Magellan Scholar program and the many research opportunities at South Carolina. Also, read about past award winners: Kate McKinney (opera direction), Kevin General (environmental health), Charlotte Eckmann (marine biology), Carl Brzorad (Czech history) and Leila Heidari (community health outreach).

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