As WPI approaches the 50th anniversary of the WPI Plan, which requires each student to complete major research projects before graduation, professor of mathematical sciences Suzanne Weekes is taking on a new post with the goal of expanding undergraduate research opportunities—especially in their early years at the university.
“That early research engagement is important,” says Weekes, who has been named interim Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies. “Students need to know they can do this. Research sounds like something far off, but they can have the opportunity and can start doing some work early on.”
In more than 20 years as a professor in the Mathematical Sciences department, Weekes has been involved as a leader in a number of important programs, both on campus and throughout the nation that have enhanced the educational experience for math students.
“We will support faculty and students in the undergraduate research enterprise,” says Weekes of her new efforts as interim associate dean. That includes summer research programs and opportunities to increase the impact of undergraduate student project work.
Advancing Impact and Outcomes
“I want to advance the impact and the outcomes and the visibility of student research. To disseminate what we’re doing," she says. "Also, I want to develop and cultivate new opportunities for partnerships with companies, with foundations, with the federal agencies to help faculty to get funding so they can have students in their labs or in their research groups.”
Weekes, who will continue to teach in addition to her new duties, says she decided to take on the new role to use leadership strengths she possesses that are different than those she has used in teaching and research.
Over the years she has put those strengths to work in a number of initiatives.
Weekes was the director of the Center for Industrial Mathematics and Statistics, which serves as a mathematical resource for industry, and is a co-founder and co-director of the nationwide Preparation for Industrial Careers in Mathematical Sciences—or PIC Math program. In PIC Math, she has worked with faculty from over 130 universities and has taught them how to make industry connections in order to provide research experiences for their students to work on problems coming directly from business, industry, or government. More than 1,500 students have taken the PIC Math courses at their universities doing MQP-like work and learning about mathematics career options outside of academia.
She served as associate head of the math department for six years and has been co-director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute Undergraduate Program, a Berkeley, California-based effort to increase the number of undergraduate math students from underrepresented groups who go on to graduate school.
The work of Dean Weekes and her collaborators has been supported by some $6 million in funding awards, including $3.5 million for PIC Math alone.
A Fellow at Drexel’s ELATE Program
But it was her experience through the 2017–18 academic year as a fellow with Drexel University’s Executive Leadership in Academic Technology and Engineering (ELATE) program that led to her new post.
ELATE provides leadership development training for prospective university leaders on a wide variety of topics, ranging from organizational dynamics to financial affairs and negotiations. But, Weekes points out, the most important element was a requirement for fellows to conduct an institutional action project.
She started her project by talking with Vice Provost for Research Bogdan Vernescu, who described a gap in the university’s undergraduate research opportunities. Weekes interviewed some 60 people to gather evidence that such a gap does indeed exist.
Undergraduate research opportunities are in need of greater university coordination, she contends, having found that opportunities for students often exist on a department-by-department or even professor-by-professor basis.
Celebrate and Showcase Project Work
“Every student at WPI does undergraduate research or an undergraduate design project—something substantial, let’s say for their Major Qualifying Project in their senior year. We need to celebrate and showcase all that work—and there’s even more that we can do,” Weekes says. She hopes that the WPI Works in Progress Undergraduate Research Symposium that took place on Nov. 25 will be the first of many events to give the WPI community the opportunity to get a sense of the work that WPI students are doing.
“We need a focus on undergraduate research and we need to let the world know the diverse and innovative work that we do with our students in this realm,” she says. “Every single undergraduate at WPI does research or design, unlike most universities where research is only an option for a select group of students. What we do is impressive and we still need to get the word out. But, there is still room for us to do better. We need to engage students in research even before their senior year so that they have time to have visible products by way of papers, IP, public presentations, etc.”
Improving, expanding, and coordinating undergraduate research opportunities—making the system more efficient—will be a prime focus of her new job.
Weekes wants to provide an accurate, comprehensive picture of the research activities of WPI undergraduates—to promote undergraduate research opportunities for students, especially in their early years at WPI, and to let them and those outside the university know about some of the effective programs that are already on campus.
She also hopes to use her connections to other institutions developed through her professional relationships to bring new ideas to WPI and spread the word about what’s happening on campus.
“Research provides tremendous benefits for our students, faculty, and the university,” Weekes says. “We have an academic infrastructure in place that allows us to do great things!”
—By Thomas Coakley