It began as an experiment. Not the laboratory kind—although there was a wild-haired chemist involved. Rather, the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), returning to UNC Asheville April 7-9, 2016, began thirty years ago as more of a social experiment.
Charged with growing a new program in undergraduate research at UNC Asheville, Chemistry Professor John Stevens wondered what would result from convening a gathering where students shared their research and faculty shared their insights on teaching and mentoring the researchers. Stevens and colleague Michael Ruiz, a professor of physics, realized they were working on similar iterations of a conference plan when each brought their idea to David Brown, UNC Asheville chancellor from 1984 to 1991.
Brown called the two together, giving them the go-ahead but offering one pivotal suggestion. He encouraged Stevens and Ruiz to hear other voices by inviting other disciplines, especially the humanities. “Brown saw the wisdom of including everybody in the conversation,” said Ruiz. “He understood that we were limiting the definition of research and lacking a wider perspective if we focused only on the sciences.”
Anyone who heard of the plans early on told Stevens and Ruiz to start small, stay close to home. “I’m a person who listens,” said John Stevens, “but then chooses what I want to hear.” Stevens ignored the cautionary voices and instead called in English Professor Merritt Moseley, whose voice he knew would carry. The three then set about designing what would become the first national conference on undergraduate research. It was Moseley who suggested the apt choice of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, an image that immediately melds the arts with the sciences, as the conference’s original identifying logo.
By the fall of 1986, the first call for papers was sent out for the conference that was to be held April 23-25, 1987, on UNC Asheville’s campus. By then, the rhetoric began to match the magnitude of the undertaking: “This breadth, this opportunity for interchange and cross-fertilization between the traditionally divided academic fields, is one of the experimental features of the Conference,” read the announcement.
Moseley remembers that the excitement of the first gathering was unmistakable, with the intimate campus setting fostering collegiality and a spirit of community. “UNC Asheville was the right place and we were there at the right time for beginnings,” he said. Ruiz, only half joking, refers to the first NCUR as the “Woodstock of Undergraduate Research.”
The spirit of cross-disciplinary exchange still infuses NCUR, as its 30th anniversary returns to its origins. After NCUR 1, UNC Asheville hosted NCUR 2, as well as the anniversary meetings for NCUR 10 and NCUR 20. Now hosting for the fifth time, UNC Asheville celebrates the success of this experiment and honors the three founders in a special recognition ceremony during the second Plenary Address on Friday, April 8.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” All three of the founders—John Stevens, Michael Ruiz, and Merritt Moseley—know that is true. They are at NCUR 30 not only as honorees but as faculty mentors. Their voices are still heard through the research presented here by their students.
- 400 participants
- 170 oral presentations, 30 sessions
- 40 poster presentations
- 6 Faculty – Administrator Network (FAN) sessions
- 4,000 participants expected
- 1,851 approved oral presentations
- 1,923 approved poster presentations
- 36 Faculty – Administrator Network (FAN) sessions