RYAN ANDERSON: Q&A with UNCP’s new undergraduate research Director


Ryan AndersonRyan Anderson’s enthusiasm for student research at UNC Pembroke is infectious. In a conversation this summer, he recalled the undergraduate research project that turned his career around. He would like to help more UNCP students have that eye-opening experience.

Dr. Anderson has been appointed interim director for the Pembroke Undergraduate Research and Creativity Center (PURC). The center’s mission is to promote high-impact, faculty-guided research.

PURC is a clearinghouse for student research. The center’s keystone event is the annual symposium, where student research of all kinds is displayed for the entire campus.

The center annually distributes approximately $40,000 in three types of grants, ranging from $500 – 1,700. The grants are for students to: 1) travel to do research and to attend conferences and events; 2) research materials; and 3) research assistantships.

A member of the History Department, Dr. Anderson is well equipped to guide undergraduate research and creative activities. He is engaged in scholarly research for a forthcoming book and has been a member of the PURC Council for seven years and has been active in all its programs.

This summer, Dr. Anderson was bouncing back and forth between two offices in preparation for the new school year. He took time out to talk about the program.

Question: Nearly every faculty member has a story about how research transformed their education and professional life. Was there such a moment for you?

Answer: For me, it began with an undergraduate experience. I was working on a degree in social science education with the goal of teaching high school and coaching baseball. I signed up for a research seminar that I did not have to take, but it proved fun. What excited me was the creative process of finding a story that others have not told. I wrote a paper researching the historical origins of the Native American Church as a response to federal policies towards American Indians in the late nineteenth century.

That was when I decided to go to graduate school, and that experience helped me get into graduate school.

Question: You have participated in all of PURC’s programs almost since its inception. As the interim director, do you have any new goals?

Answer: The first thing is to get settled into our new location in Wellons Hall (Suite F). With more space, I would like the center to be a hub, a meeting place, a comfortable place for students. It should be a functioning workspace for students, with access to computers. Another goal is to work with the Literacy Commons to publish some of the best of the PURC Symposium. My other goals are to continue the good things that are already happening at PURC, including maintaining a high level of involvement in the symposium; getting more faculty involved in mentoring student research; encouraging more diversity of the research projects; and I’d like to give away more grant money. Grant applications are becoming quite competitive.

Question: Should every student at UNCP be able to engage in this kind of high-impact research?

Answer:  Research is an integral part of a university education, and PURC opens up opportunities for advance research. Research is eye opening, and a majority of our students would benefit from some exposure to serious research or creative endeavor. It’s been like a snowball rolling down hill. There is a burgeoning core of students doing great work who are selling other students on the value of research ­– that it can be enjoyable as well as valuable.

Question: You mentioned “diversity” of research. Tell us more about that?

Answer: One of the things we’ve done well is to provide interdisciplinary space. The PURC Council is made up of faculty from across campus. We’ve demonstrated that all of the disciplines produce excellent scholarship. We’ve been fortunate to have live performances in music and theatre at the symposium. There is a good balance between the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

Question: Do you have some favorite research projects?

Answer: I get excited about a lot of projects. I enjoyed the live performances by the Jazz Combo and a theatre performance. We gave a grant to a student who wrote a play so he could stage it. We sponsored a student-scientist this summer who is studying in Alaska for six weeks and another at Bangor Univeristy in Wales, UK. Adam Walls mentored a student who created a moving sculpture for a project titled “Mythical creature: fabric, leather and metal sculpture.” That was genius. I was inspired by several students of (English professor) Susan Cannata’s, who wrote about Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games.” I have an academic interest in media created for young people, so after seeing the student’s work, I read the entire trilogy. I was also intrigued by a science project on fire ants and how to control them. They are an invasive species that I have in my yard. It was very useful.

Question: What does a vigorous undergraduate research culture say about a university?

Answer: It’s what distinguishes us. It says that our faculty are dedicated teacher-scholars. It says our students are engaged in learning that is transformative. There is more to do if we are to make UNCP what Chancellor (Kyle) Carter refers to as an “institution of choice,” but building undergraduate research opportunities can contribute greatly to that goal. For students, research is what sets them apart from the crowd, whether it’s for graduate and professional school or a job application. Research gives students an opportunity to go above and beyond what goes on in the classroom. It gives them the freedom to explore their own ideas.

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Dr. Ryan Anderson teaches U.S. History and specializes in cultural history. His book, “Merry’s Flock and the Creation of All-American Boyhood,” will be published by the University of Arkansas Press. For more information about the PURC Center, please contact the office at (910) 775-4263 or email purc@uncp.edu. Visit PURC online at: