SGB President-elect to pitch travel grants for student researchers

Matt Olm said he would have spent about $800 on a trip to the American Society for Microbiology meeting in Denver last summer if his research lab had not covered the expenses.

Olm, a senior majoring in microbiology, attended and presented his research on bacterial DNA at the conference.

But if senior Mike Nites, the incoming Student Government Board president, finds success with one of his campaign initiatives, Pitt students may have access to additional funds for research-related trips.

Nites said he plans to introduce student travel grants that the Board would award to undergraduate students conducting research. These grants would be used to help cover the costs of travel expenses for students hoping to attend or present at research conferences.

The Student Government Board currently oversees the distribution of the $2.6 million Student Activities Fund, into which all non-College of General Studies undergraduates pay $80 per semester. The Board allocates the money to clubs, organizations and club sports teams at Pitt.

The recent cuts in funding toward certain formula groups — student organizations that receive a set percentage of the Student Activities Fund — has freed up more money for other pursuits, according to Nites.

For instance, Pitt shut down Telefact, a student organization through which employees answered callers’ requests for information, last spring. Telefact received $80,000 per year in allocations while it was active.

The University also cut yearly funding for the University yearbook, Panther Prints — which received $40,000 per year in allocations — this fall. Panther Prints will still receive $10,000 for an online photo album that will replace the print yearbook.

Nites said some of the leftover money could go toward funding this program. He said he plans to propose the reservation of $20,000 — a sum which could later increase depending on the success of the program — in allocations for undergraduate research.

He said the Board would not determine whether to award travel grants based on the content of the research, but any undergraduate student presenting research at a conference could be eligible for a grant.

“When we think of the Student Activities Fund, we usually think of things like mock trial, club sports, cultural groups or religious groups. We forget that conducting research is also an activity that students might want to pursue,” Nites said.

Nites plans to award the grants on a first-come-first-served basis until the funds run out.

Nites said he has been researching a program known as the Undergraduate Conference Fund at Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, which he plans to use as a model for travel grants at Pitt.

According to Nick Picon, the president of Georgia Tech’s Student Government Association, the Association reserves $20,000 from Georgia Tech’s student activity fund for the Undergraduate Conference Fund, which Picon helped create.

“We felt it was important to provide undergraduate students equal opportunity to use their student activity fees whether they were playing sports, participating in cultural events or presenting their research around the world,” Picon said.

Picon said the Student Government Association made the fund available to students this fall, and that undergraduates can apply to receive a $250 stipend to help pay for travel costs while attending research conferences.

The Undergraduate Conference Fund is based on a Graduate Conference Fund program that has been available for graduate students at Georgia Tech for at least eight years, according to Arren Washington, president of the Georgia Tech Graduate Student Government Association. The fund consists of $110,000 in allocations reserved for research conference expenses.

Although Olm said he believes $250 would not cover an entire trip’s expenses, he supports Nites’ idea to reserve funds for individual undergraduate students attending or presenting in research conferences.

“I think that attending a research conference is a great experience for undergraduate researchers to have, and I would support any effort to help make that possible,” Olm said.

Nites said he plans to introduce his proposal for travel grants with the Board privately during their retreat on January 11. After the retreat, he said he hopes to discuss the grants at public Board meetings.

Nites added that a majority of the Student Government Board members must agree on a proposal for the travel grants before the Board can present the final plan to Pitt administrators for approval. If Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey approves the proposal, Nites hopes students will be able to apply for grants next fall.

Pitt’s Graduate and Professional Student Government has already implemented a similar program.

David Gau, GPSG president, said he thinks the grants are “an interesting idea.”

The GPSG executive board collects $180,000 from the activities fees graduate students pay each semester, according to Gau. Each school year, the board allocates 25 percent of the fund to travel grants for students to attend conferences.

Graduate students who apply for the grants receive $200 if they present research at a conference or $100 if they attend a conference, Gau said.

Gau said the GPSG allocates more money to students presenting at research conferences because of submission and registration fees. Gau also said the extra $100 incentivizes graduate students to submit their work to research conferences.

Alex Majchrzak, the former SGB Allocations Committee chairman, said he supports Nites’ travel grants.

“There should be a portion of money set aside for this project and [that portion of money] should be clearly separate from the allocation of funds for student groups,” Majchrzak said.

According to Nites, extra allocation funds roll over into an overhead fund for the next year.

Majchrzak and Nites both said they were unsure of the approximate amount of unspent allocations from 2012 through 2013.

Emilee Shine, a senior majoring in microbiology, said she attended a meeting of the Allegheny Branch of the American Society for Microbiology last spring in State College, Pa.

She said that while $250 might not cover the costs of national conferences, the amount could be enough to cover “equally important local meetings.”

“Pitt does a great job at offering research experiences,” Shine said. “But it often doesn’t follow through in providing these types of opportunities which truly make our graduates stand out for grad school, medical school or the work industry.”

Ken Service, Pitt’s vice chancellor for communications, said that the University provides extensive opportunities for undergraduate students to be involved in research.

He said he does not know of any program similar to Nites’ proposed student travel grants.

“While there is no University-wide program to support student travel to conferences to present research papers, most of the schools have some resources available for this purpose,” Service said.

Service recommended that students speak with their respective research instructors and dean’s offices or the University Honors College in order to seek out opportunities for research grants.

Nites agreed that Pitt, as well as individual University departments, provides many opportunities for students conducting research, but said that the Student Government Board is striving to encourage more participation in research among undergraduate students by providing some financial aid.

“Student Government Board’s goal is to explore creating and funding for an undergraduate, University-wide program to encourage academic excellence and intellectual curiosity, while supplementing opportunities provided by the departments,” Nites said.