Roanoke College URAP students find they are in a unique category among their peers

Wilson ’11 and Huemer ’11 work closely with two professors of public affairs to launch a new Web site on gun control.

Emma Wilson '11 and Sophie Huemer '11 already feel they are a step ahead of their classmates. As scholars in the Undergraduate Research Assistants Program, Wilson and Huemer are researching the history of gun control laws and how these laws could change in the near future to help regulate safety and crime in the United States.

The URAP program is unique to Roanoke College, offering only eight spots a year to incoming students. Each student works closely with a faculty member on an original research project of interest both to the URAP scholar and to the faculty member. Generally, research leads students to publication in a professional journal or a presentation at a professional conference. The program also offers students many advantages when it comes time to apply to graduate school.

Emma Wilson works side by side with Dr. Harry Wilson, professor of public affairs. She recently has been researching second amendment cases that have made it to the Supreme Court. Currently, the law states that no citizen is legally permitted to carry a gun or have one in their home. Emma Wilson said that if this law changes, it will inevitably change everyone's life.

"This change would eventually affect everyone because everyone is affected by crime and concerned about their safety," Emma Wilson said.

Dr. Heath Brown, assistant professor of public affairs, works closely with Huemer, who is researching the Brady Campaign report cards, which highlight the progress leaders in various states are making in effort to protect children from gun violence.

Much of the research the two students are conducting will be placed on a new Web site that will inform the general public about Virginia's gun laws and how these laws affect the United States as a whole. It will feature a comprehensive database outlining both pro-gun and anti-gun viewpoints. The project, brainstormed by Dr. Wilson, was sparked from the shootings at Virginia Tech and questions if tragedy causes public policy to change.

"Virginia Tech fits this theory," Brown said. "We are looking at the past and are trying to figure out what factors are changing gun policy. We are stepping outside of the political process and looking directly at outside factors."

Research, data collection and learning how to make a Web site all take a great amount of time and precision. The Web site is taking a bit longer to complete, but Brown does not think this will take away from the importance of the students' work and that it is teaching them how to deal with challenges.

"Projects like this take a while," Brown said. "First, the students are collecting data on state policies, state laws and independent factors on gun policy. They will then analyze their data…and draw conclusions from their findings. We are targeting this project to take four years or longer."

Emma was most drawn to this project because she wanted to learn more about these gun issues and to broaden her horizons. Coming from Tuftonboro, N.H., with a population just over 2,000, she wanted to gain insight into a subject that was somewhat foreign to her.

"I come from a pro-gun family, and I thought this project was interesting because I wanted to look at this issue objectively," Wilson said. "I think it is important for college students and the rest of the country because gun control affects everyone."

Emma is not quite sure where her life will take her, but she is certain that the research skills she has learned will put her a step ahead of her competition once she enters the working world.

"Whether I want to teach or do paralegal work in the future, I will need to know how to research," she said. "The project is giving me a step up and a general knowledge of Virginia and the country. Everything involves research, and I am glad I am learning those skills now."

Brown also feels that this project places URAP students in a field many undergraduate students dream of attaining. Because most of the research is done independently, the students are learning lessons in time management and responsibility.

"These students are in an unbelievably good position for graduate school," Brown said. "In four years, they can demonstrate undergraduate research experience that is essential to their acceptance into graduate school or professional school. Good research takes place over many years, and they will get to a point of publication."

Huemer also said that the research she is doing can only help her for the future, whether she applies to law school or works for a non-profit organization.

"This project will give me the experience I need," Huemer said. "It gives me the chance to hone my research skills and decide what information I need and what I don't need."

Also, Brown said that having a student help him research gives him the opportunity to learn more about the issues than he would be able to if he were working alone.

"Research is hard to do on your own," Brown said. "Good research is done in a collaborative way, and having someone help gives me more time to do other research. The research done at Roanoke by these students is equivalent to research done at the University of Virginia or Virginia Tech. These students are experiencing the life of a graduate student."

Dr. Wilson also looks forward to watching Emma grow in her knowledge of research and achieving the point of publication.

"I think part of the first year is really getting to know each other and our work patterns and habits," Dr. Wilson said. "For Emma, it's a matter of learning what I need her to do. For me, it's a question of how to communicate that to her. I think the real benefits are that [Emma and Sophie] learn about research and experience college in a way that most students never do. I think they also get to see that professors are people too."

Another important aspect of the program is gaining hands-on experience and forming bonds with professors and other students. Emma said that her experience thus far has been nothing but enjoyable.

"I would recommend this program," she said. "Dr. Wilson has become a good friend, and I know that he is always rooting for me and that he supports me. I felt like I was ahead coming into college and that I already had my niche. Working with Sophie gave me a friend automatically and picking a professor's brain is always nice."