Undergrads get academic research experience as Business for a Better World fellows

Junior Tammy Li, left, and management professor Chris Henle, discuss surveys used in Henle's research.
Junior Tammy Li, left, and management professor Chris Henle, discuss surveys used in Henle’s research.

For many of Tammy Li and Molly Peek’s undergraduate peers, research means digging through the stacks in the bowels of Morgan Library, highlighting choice factoids as they collect ideas in support of a term paper.

Peek and Li are among the scholars generating those ideas as undergraduate research fellows.

Working under College of Business research faculty, Li, a senior in the management program, develops survey questions to be used within experiments designed to illuminate employers’ willingness to hire workers with a criminal record. Peek, a sophomore studying management, codes and analyzes qualitative data from in-depth interviews with the aim of understanding the barriers facing women in being promoted to more senior positions in their firms. Both are contributing to papers that will ultimately be published in academic journals devoted to their respective disciplines. It’s a far cry from the usual undergraduate’s definition of research.

“You pop into the databases, you look up a few things and then you write up a paper,” Peek reflected on the typical undergraduate experience. “With this, it’s really forming new theory based off ideas that already exist, so it feels like the stuff that I’m doing through the research program is actually contributing to the field of management and gender studies.”

Peek and Li are among a handful of College of Business students participating in the Business for a Better World Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. Launched in 2021 with four fellows, the program matches academically curious undergraduates with research faculty, employing students to support select research. This year, the program expanded to seven participants – with Li and Peek returning for their second year supporting researchers.

Extended into the next academic year, the Business for a Better World Undergraduate Research Fellowship addresses the challenges of getting undergraduates involved in business research. Without the need to complete repetitive lab work often offloaded onto undergraduates, the College had to develop a program that incorporated students deeply into research design and analysis.

“At CSU, there’s a strong norm for providing undergraduate students with research opportunities,” said Ken Manning, College of Business Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research. “How could we do that in the College of Business? There’s a lot of social science in business research, and more than half the work is just the cognitive effort that goes into it.”

An introduction to the impacts of scholarship

The research fellows have met the intellectual challenge. In her research into hiring people with a criminal record, Li read existing literature, building a foundation of topical knowledge. That information guides her as she creates employer questionnaires and analyzes responses alongside the primary researcher, Chris Henle. Similarly, Peek’s work as a research fellow involved absorbing literature about women’s career progression before applying it to screen suitable interview participants and transcribe the interviews to allow her faculty supervisor, Tiffany Trzebiatowski, to systematically analyze the data and reveal new insights.

As the students materially contribute to their research projects, they’re also engaging in topics about which they’re passionate. Li’s immersed herself in diversity, equity and inclusion, with an eye on taking that knowledge into her first job. Peek helps guide gender studies, which she plans to apply to a career addressing social betterment and environmental sustainability. As they explore these topics, they see how short the line between academic research and empowering businesses to build a better world can be.

“I’m particularly interested in diversity, equity and inclusion,” Li said. “My concentration is human resources, and I want to focus on that as I graduate and move into my career. This project really aligned with my interests. I truly believe that it could have a really positive impact on a lot of people.”

While neither Li nor Peek have immediate plans to pursue graduate-level research opportunities, they say their experience at the College of Business will be valuable in industry. They learned how to approach projects with the analytical mindset as well standards for communicating with professionals. Most of all, it taught them they can make a difference.

“It just makes me more aware of the problems that are out there,” Peek said. “I’m reading all of these papers that have solutions and ways that we can move forward.”

Developing relationships as well as researchers

The success of the Business for a Better World Undergraduate Fellowship program is built on nurturing undergraduate students and helping them grow into the role. As students work with faculty on their respective projects and receive hands-on experience in developing tools and analyzing data, they also meet weekly as a community with Manning and management associate professor Samantha Conroy to talk about what it means to be an academic researcher. Manning and Conroy also meet one-on-one with students to discuss their projects as well as academic and career ambitions.

Response from faculty managing undergraduate research fellows has been positive, too. They receive assistance on projects and have a rare opportunity to look at research practices from the perspective of an undergraduate.

“If you’ve never done research before, even basic things that I take for granted need to be explained,” said Chris Henle, professor in the management department. “We would have to sometimes go back over the basic concepts so Tammy could understand what I’m trying to do. It’s been fun and it’s been good for me, too, just to review the basics and make sure that I’m good at explaining things and helping someone understand this process from the beginning.”

As they gain a fundamental understanding of academic research, students also have an uncommon chance to build relationships with faculty. As they meet weekly – sometimes more often – faculty/student pairs enjoy a significant amount of face-to-face interaction that extends beyond those started in the classroom.

“She’s been great,” Li said. “I had her as a professor and I honors optioned a class with her. That’s kind of how we started establishing a closer relationship. It’s been great working with her. She’s such a great teacher, and I’ve learned so much from her.”

Postgraduate plans vary for students active in the Business for a Better World Undergraduate Research Fellows program. A handful of fellows are considering continuing farther in academia. Others, such as Li and Peek, plan to take the experience with them into their first jobs in industry. When they do, they’ll also take the Business for a Better World mindset with them.

“Be asking questions about the world around you,” Peek said. “Working on these research projects has really opened my eyes. We should be questioning why there are disparities in society. We should be looking at why those things are happening.”

About CSU’s College of Business

The College of Business at Colorado State University is focused on using business to create a better world.

As an AACSB-accredited business school, the College is among the top five percent of business colleges worldwide, providing programs and career support services to more than 2,500 undergraduate and 1,300 graduate students. Faculty help students across our top-ranked on-campus and online programs develop the knowledge, skills and values to navigate a rapidly evolving business world and address global challenges with sustainable business solutions. Our students are known for their creativity, work ethic and resilience—resulting in an undergraduate job offer and placement rate of over 90% within 90 days of graduation.

The College’s highly ranked programs include its Online MBA, which has been ranked the No. 1 program in Colorado by U.S. News and World Report for six years running and achieved No. 16 for employability worldwide from QS Quacquarelli Symonds. The College’s Impact MBA is also ranked by Corporate Knights as a Top 20 “Better World MBA” worldwide.