Centralized Research Office Opens at Saint Mary’s

Professor Bettina Spencer leads initiative with global perspective

by Melinda McNamara

When Grace Layman ’24 needed advice for her application to the Fulbright Program, she learned a world of resources was just steps away in Madeleva Hall.

That’s where a new academic research and grants office has opened for faculty, staff, and students. Anyone looking for grant funding or for advice on publishing can utilize the Office for Academic Research, Grants, and Sponsored Programs. There, a full complement of support services aims to centralize the wide range of opportunities and resources for the campus community.

The office emerged from a strategic commitment to elevate the College’s research focus. A team of faculty and staff reimagined a central resource center that could support work across all academic disciplines and levels of expertise. “We have an opportunity to be a hub for research,” Provost and Senior Vice President Barbara May says. “We can bring others with similar interests together to expand and share our knowledge in ways that will inform the world. In particular, with an ongoing focus on gender, we strive to eliminate gender gaps and equity issues.”

The nascent office is under the guidance of acting director of academic and undergraduate research Bettina Spencer, a professor in the Department of Psychology. May said opportunities to support both students and faculty across the College will be identified and developed in ways they have not in the past.

“For example, we look to increase the number of students who participate in research,” May explains. “We are working to develop student employment opportunities that allow for research to be a student’s focus, starting in year one. This office will also provide a means to further support many research processes, including IRB [Institutional Review Board, providing oversight on research that impacts human subjects] management as well as the ongoing support for a yearly symposium, where both students and faculty have an opportunity to share their work across our community.”

Barb May

Collaboration is an important component of research, and with this new office and structure, I only envision this collaboration will increase.


– Barb May, Ph.D., Provost and Senior Vice President

Expanding Research Opportunities Worldwide

For the past year, Professor Spencer has served as the appointed coordinator for an international internship program known as SPUR, or Social-Personality Undergraduate Research. 

SPUR began as a summer research initiative for students interested in graduate studies in psychology, but has evolved into an internship-mentorship opportunity for undergraduate students from historically underrepresented backgrounds. In this work, Spencer shares the Saint Mary’s philosophy to enrich the students’ experience, infusing the program with a whole-person ethos. She hosts intern workshops that focus on the research process, as well as how to move into graduate school with their work underway. Topics range from how to find scholarships or apply for grants to what it takes to become published in key professional journals.

“I put a Saint Mary’s spin on the workshops,” Spencer says. “I take the things that work best with our students and apply them to the SPUR students.”

For example, Spencer has created a sense of community among the SPUR interns, something she learned from the prevailing spirit at Saint Mary’s. Her approach offers space for collaboration, support, and encouragement. Through informal conversations, students and Spencer discuss ways to balance internship responsibilities with other commitments, such as school work and part-time jobs. They explore avenues to develop communication skills and receive feedback in a constructive way.

One topic of conversation is how to thrive in graduate school: not just academically, but emotionally and socially.  “My grad school experience was so harsh and brutal,” Spencer recalls. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

Spencer explains: “Students open up about their fears. They talk about what’s working and not working in their projects. The open exchange helps the interns think through possible solutions and, ultimately, feel better about their work.” This, she says, is precisely what she envisions for students at Saint Mary’s as well.  

It was important to Spencer to recruit like-minded faculty mentors to the SPUR program. Faculty from institutions with active research labs in Ireland, Canada, England, and the US work one-on-one with their SPUR interns. They offer guidance on research and professional development through virtual chat programs and video conferencing platforms. As Spencer works alongside the interns and faculty mentors, she also gains a broader view of undergraduate research and what students will need to succeed at the graduate level. She will bring back to Saint Mary’s the lessons learned from coaching her cohort of 12 SPUR interns.

“This initiative serves as a way to approach, recognize, and support interdisciplinary, collaborative research that has been long-occurring at Saint Mary’s.”

– Bettina Spencer
acting director of academic and undergraduate research

Lessons Learned and Repurposed Into Best Practices

The vision for the Office for Academic Research, Grants, and Sponsored Programs is to support and expand research opportunities for faculty and students. It offers a central space where anyone interested in research can get answers, support, and guidance. “This initiative serves as a way to approach, recognize, and support interdisciplinary, collaborative research that has been long-occurring at Saint Mary’s,” Spencer said.

One of Spencer’s first undertakings through the office is to pilot research clusters that bring together faculty, staff, and students from different disciplinary backgrounds who have common interests to brainstorm and collaborate. These research clusters center around four themes for the 2023-2024 academic year: ethics of artificial intelligence; human dignity and solidarity; social and behavioral sciences; and the social and economic empowerment of women.

Within days of opening the Saint Mary’s office, Spencer received an outpouring of support and encouragement from colleagues and
students across all disciplines. Volunteers reached out to Spencer with offers to help advance the initiatives. Students walked into Room 103 in Madeleva Hall searching for help. Faculty from Holy Cross College also expressed interest in joining a research cluster.

For Saint Mary’s senior Layman, the resources inside the research office have brought her one step closer to Argentina where she hopes to serve as an English teaching assistant and cultural ambassador if she becomes a Fulbright Scholar.

“I hope the team can provide constructive feedback that will guide me to success with the Fulbright grant,” Layman said. “I am eager to participate in mock interviews and any additional preparations that will enhance my readiness for the post-submission phase of my application process.” 

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