Undergraduate research experiences: A narrative discussion between two undergraduate students within disability studies


Aspen Lillywhite

Valentina Villamil


Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, Department of Community Health Sciences,

Cumming School of Medicine, University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Corresponding Author

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to

Email: Aspen Lillywhite


Developing a researcher identity during an undergraduate degree is beneficial to the student’s experience and their future. Exposure to research opportunities is important for developing hard and softs skills; for example, using software, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and understanding the nuanced and rigorous process of producing research. This paper includes a conversation between two undergraduate students in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies who became involved with the WolbPack, which is an interdisciplinary research team, during our first year of university studies. We reflect on our undergraduate research experiences, being a member of the WolbPack, developing a research identity within Disability Studies, and the implications of our experiences. Our involvement in producing knowledge within the Disability Studies field has reshaped our worldviews and added to the literature covering the social situation of disabled people. We posit that exposing students at the undergraduate level to knowledge production, including research, could increase the number of students that go on to pursue academia, the number of students who perform research in the community after graduation, and the degree of success of undergraduate students. The knowledge produced by undergraduate students has the potential to create societal change, as such knowledge can inform policy development aimed at deconstructing social, cultural, and systemic barriers.


undergraduate students; undergraduate research experience; disability studies


The importance of undergraduate students as researchers is increasingly acknowledged (Cohen, 2016; Wolbring, Djebrouni, Johnson, Diep, & Guzman, 2018), and numerous studies outline the benefits of an undergraduate research experience (Brown, Lewis, & Bevan, 2016; Clyne, Shieh, & Stanford, 2019; Mann, Bishop, Kaiser, & Cafer, 2020; Zydney, Bennett, Shahid, & Bauer, 2002). There is a lack of literature covering undergraduate research experiences within Disability Studies (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019b), and a gap in literature covering the social situation of people with disabilities (Berghs, Atkin, Graham, Hatton, & Thomas, 2016; Chataika & McKenzie, 2016; Wolbring & Djebrouni, 2018; Wolbring et al., 2018; World Health Organization, 2011) as well as a lack of literature providing narrative dialogue from undergraduate student perspectives covering research experience. As such, this paper presents a dialogue between two undergraduate students, who are in their final year of a Bachelor of Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies degree, in which they reflect on their research experiences within the field of Disability Studies and how it has impacted their university experience, their future career goals, and contributed to important research and literature on disabled people’s experiences rooted in a social justice framework.

Undergraduate research experiences

Research experiences are known to be beneficial to undergraduate student experiences (Seymour, Hunter, Laursen, & Deantoni, 2004). Literature exists covering the role of students as knowledge producers (Shin & Cho, 2003; Tan, Hung, & Scardamalia, 2006) and researchers (Bucholtz et al., 2014; Hunter & O’Brien, 2018; Kerfeld & Simons, 2007; Lee, 2006; Thomson & Gunter, 2006; Wolbring et al., 2018). Developing research identities within undergraduate students has numerous benefits (Adedokun et al., 2012; Davis & Wagner, 2019; Higgins, Nettell, Furukawa, Sakoda, & Education, 2012; McGinn & Lovering, 2009; Purdy & Walker, 2013; Saddler, 2008; Wolbring et al., 2018). One study looking at the perspectives of alumni on undergraduate research and the related educational outcomes found that students involved in research during their undergraduate degree reported: "significantly greater enhancement for eight specific cognitive and personal skills and abilities" (Bauer & Bennett, 2003, p. 225). Instilling a research identity within undergraduate students is also impactful on their career choices (Gushue, Scanlan, Pantzer, & Clarke, 2006; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 2002; Prince, 1995; Tang, Fouad, & Smith, 1999).

Existing literature outlines the importance of undergraduate researchers, and undergraduate research is increasingly being discussed (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019b; Wolbring et al., 2018). Literature exists covering undergraduate research experiences in the fields of biochemistry, biology, engineering, and sociology (Clyne et al., 2019; Cuthbert, Arunachalam, & Licina, 2012; Elizabeth & Michelina, 2017; Olimpo, Fisher, & Dechenne-Peters, 2016; Zydney et al., 2002). However, there is still a lack of literature covering undergraduate research experiences in the social sciences, other than sociology (Craney et al., 2011; Seymour et al., 2004). Studies exist that aim to understand the proportion and role of disabled undergraduate students in research (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019b; Smith-Jackson & Taylor); however, to our knowledge, no literature exists that covers the role of undergraduate student researchers in Disability Studies.

Students can fulfill their role as agents of change and active citizens by producing knowledge (Loh, 2018; Reis, 2014). Knowledge production can initiate policy change and influence discourses (Loh, 2018). However, post-secondary institutions could do more to educate citizens for democracy (Hansen et al., 2007). Existing literature suggests that evidence is missing on the social situation of people with disabilities (Wolbring & Djebrouni, 2018; Wolbring et al., 2018), and the narrative around people with disabilities in society is lacking (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019a, 2019b, 2020). As such, producing knowledge within the field of Disability Studies will add to the body of work that covers the social situation of people with disabilities, and there is potential for undergraduate students to engage in such knowledge production.

The WolbPack

The WolbPack is a collaborative interdisciplinary research team that focuses on a variety of research topics, such as equity, diversity and inclusion, and social justice, using a disability studies lens. This group is led by Dr. Gregor Wolbring in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. The WolbPack gives students, all of which start in the group as undergraduate students, an opportunity to perform research and generate a research identity for themselves. As stated by Dr. Wolbring, “Knowing how to perform research and seeing themselves within the identity of being a researcher also makes undergraduate students who want to work for and with disabled people after graduation with their bachelor's degree much stronger allies for disabled people and much better change agents” (Wolbring, N.D.). The students in the WolbPack cover a diverse range of research topics including ethics, equity, inclusion, and diversity, emerging technologies, and sustainability to name a few (Zulueta, 2019). Many of the WolbPack’s research projects seek to find gaps, such as the lack of disability perspective within narratives (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019a, 2019b, 2020), and problems in existing literature, such as the medicalized portrayal of people with disabilities (Lillywhite & Wolbring, 2019a, 2020; Villamil & Wolbring, 2019) and recommend ways to improve such areas. The WolbPack engages with emerging topics such as the social impact of science and technology in the lives of people with disabilities including, social robots, human enhancement, and converging technologies (nano, bio, info, cognitive) (Wolbring, Diep, Yumakulov, Ball, & Yergens, 2013; Yumakulov, Yergens, & Wolbring, 2012).

The WolbPack promotes undergraduate research, and as alumni, Wentao Li stated, "We want to remove the assumption that research is only done by full-time researchers. Everybody can contribute to research, and everyone is capable of producing knowledge that can change the world. We also need a youth perspective, so we need undergraduate students to be able to provide their voice” (Zulueta, 2019). The WolbPack is a collaborative student group that provides a unique learning experience (Zulueta, 2019). As Dr. Wolbring stated in an interview,

“The students learn a lot of basic research skills and tools, like how to use reference software, or planning and time management skills. However, they also learn how to think outside the box and acquire a worldview. Everyone in the group comes from different backgrounds and has different ideas and skills; they learn that you get further in the game if you work together. It's all about collaboration and belonging to something bigger”. (Zulueta, 2019)

Narrative discussion

In this section, two undergraduate students in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, converse about undergraduate research experiences, being a member of the WolbPack, and developing a research identity within disability studies, and lastly discuss the implications of these experiences. The exploration of these perspectives reveals the value and importance of research experiences to the undergraduate students, how these experiences have changed their worldview and how they understand disability, and how it has shaped their future endeavours. Furthermore, this conversation reveals the importance of having students involved in knowledge production and being a part of research for social change.

Reflection on Undergraduate Research Experiences

Aspen: I became involved in research during the first year of my undergraduate degree. Dr. Gregor Wolbring emailed out the opportunity to attend an undergraduate research symposium organized by the Cumming School of Medicine. Attending the conference and being exposed to undergraduate students presenting their research got me interested in becoming involved with research myself, and especially within the field of Disability Studies. Looking back, I did not fully comprehend the foundations of Disability Studies when I began, but over the years I have gained a better understanding, and I continually seek to further my learning. Following the conference, I talked with Dr. Wolbring about the possibility of joining his interdisciplinary research group called the WolbPack.

Valentina: I think that’s a good point you bring up about how the way you were exposed early on to research in your undergraduate degree through Dr. Wolbring’s invitation to attend the research symposium influenced your desire to further pursue it. I think that early exposure is very important in university because research is not something that is talked about in high school, or at least in my high school. On the topic of high school, the transition from high school to being an undergraduate student during my first year of university was a large adjustment. I was used to attending my classes and completing assignments or tests outlined by my teachers. In contrast, research is more self-directed. However, being involved in research helped me acquire soft skills such as critical thinking, leadership, and problem-solving that I further developed throughout my degree.

Aspen: I agree. Soft skills are not necessarily what you would learn in an academic course. For example, I improved my oral communication skills by presenting at conferences and my written communication skills through writing academic papers. The confidence I have gained through those experiences has also been a valuable skill that I have applied throughout my undergraduate degree and can apply in my future endeavours.

Valentina: Exactly! To expand on some of the skills you mentioned, one that has been important is time management. Being able to appropriately balance research responsibilities with a full-time course load, along with extracurricular activities is extremely important to ensure that I remain consistent in all those areas of my life. The summer is when we complete the data collection and analysis and write the first draft of the manuscript, and throughout the school year, we engage in knowledge dissemination opportunities. For example, writing abstracts for conferences, presenting at conferences, and making final revisions to the manuscript in preparation for submission.

Aspen: Something else that Dr. Wolbring emphasized was long-term planning. For example, when conducting research, multiple steps must be completed and approved such as obtaining ethics approval months ahead of contacting study participants. Therefore, planning years in advance is something I learned to do through my research experience. Especially having it planned in such detail was a different, yet useful experience. It gets you thinking ahead, and your mind is always proactively thinking about what the next step is.

Experiences with The WolbPack

Aspen: Being a member of an interdisciplinary undergraduate research group, the WolbPack, has provided numerous opportunities to work collaboratively with fellow researchers, establish a research identity, and mentor new research students. Collaboration is a founding principle of the WolbPack, which provided the opportunity to learn from others. I learned a lot about myself and what I can contribute to group settings. Dr. Wolbring also emphasized a bottom-up approach to facilitating growth through sporadic progress check-ins and one-on-one meetings to discuss self-identified areas of improvement and creating a plan of action to make the change. This approach challenges the traditional supervisor-student hierarchy and enabled me to identify my communication weaknesses and work toward improving this skill. The benefit of being a part of a team is that you have the opportunity to recognize the qualities in others that you want to implement into your own life. Using self-reflection and interacting with colleagues enabled me to instill these qualities into my skillset.

Valentina: Being a part of the WolbPack has also allowed us to meet new people. The WolbPack is not an exclusive research group. Dr. Wolbring supervises a diverse group of students. His one requirement is that students need to be committed to putting in the time to learn and improve. The small group setting allows us to connect on a deeper level. This has been extremely helpful in navigating university by sharing experiences, discussing challenges, or even gaining helpful advice from older students regarding graduate school. Large class settings can be intimidating to make those connections. Being able to interact with others on a personal level and gaining a support group has been a key part of our experience with the WolbPack.

Aspen: I agree. I think there is a unique dynamic within the WolbPack and likely within other research group settings where you have the opportunity to connect with people beyond just working on a group project assigned by your professor for example. From spending hours over the summer in the office together, to collaborating on academic projects, or even through social events like potlucks and birthday dinners, you can make meaningful relationships.

Valentina: Yes, there have been many unique experiences, particularly conferences, that the WolbPack has provided that not all undergraduate students can participate in. The WolbPack promotes knowledge dissemination opportunities. We were supported in attending conferences and connecting with other academics, which was a great learning experience. There is so much to learn from watching other people present, which has led to the betterment of our presentations. Being able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances during presentations and interacting in academic social spheres are also things we have learned.

Aspen: Not only did the encouragement of knowledge dissemination opportunities have a big impact on our personal development, but it also challenged the norms about who belongs in these spaces. In other words, it is crucial to have the attendance of undergraduate research students in conferences and their publications in academic journals, to demonstrate the value of including a diversity of people from different backgrounds, academic stages, and ages in these spaces.

Researcher Identity within Disability Studies

Aspen: As undergraduate researchers, our work has the potential to influence policy development and create social change. For example, my topics of study cover how artificial intelligence and machine learning are covered in relation to ethics and people with disabilities and the wellbeing of people with disabilities. I think these topics are incredibly important because it adds to the body of literature covering people with disabilities, and our research tends to focus on social issues related to people with disabilities which is often missing in the literature.

Valentina: As able-bodied individuals, we are obliged to act as allies and advocates, and we have an important role in continuing to promote equity for people with disabilities, which can be done by producing research. My current topic of study covers the role of individuals, including disabled people, students, and health professionals, as active citizens in society. As students, researchers, and citizens, we need to work to be agents of change. Being undergraduate researchers has enabled us to act in this role and produce knowledge that guides policy development and ultimately benefits people with disabilities. For example, some of the WolbPack members gave a presentation on artificial intelligence, machine learning, ethics, and people with disabilities for Accenture, which is a professional IT company. The WolbPack also presented on equity, diversity, and inclusion through an ability studies lens at the Alberta Health Services Palliative Care Grand Rounds.

Aspen: Doing research within the field of Disability Studies has broadened my perspective and has raised my awareness of the barriers that people with disabilities face. Whatever direction my career takes, the knowledge and appreciation for a Critical Disability Studies lens will continue to shape my worldview.

Valentina: Definitely. Barriers are a concept that I was not aware of before conducting research in Disability Studies. Now, I am passionate about producing research to help resolve issues that currently impact people with disabilities and issues that have the potential to impact them in the future, for example, the ongoing advancement and implementation of neurotechnologies and artificial intelligence in society. I recognize the privilege I hold as an able-bodied individual, and I am passionate about advocating and producing knowledge that directly exposes these issues in an attempt to make society more inclusive. My undergraduate research experience has made me recognize the importance of bringing a critical lens into my future career - especially in fields where the medical perception of people with disabilities is dominant. Having diverse perspectives is valuable to the narrative surrounding people with disabilities, and in discourses covering implicit bias, perceptions, stereotypes, and socially accepted assumptions.

Implications of Undergraduate Research Experience

Aspen: As you just said, I too have come to recognize the importance of diversifying one’s perspective and employing a critical Disability Studies lens. This has shaped my approach to learning in academic courses and often introduces other professors to an alternate way of thinking. For example, if I write a paper for a course outside of CRDS, I can apply critical disability theory, which may be new to that professor.

Valentina: I agree with you on that point. For example, I am taking a Law and Society course right now and we are learning about critical race theory and feminist theory. Having a background in Disability Studies, I have come to appreciate how important it is to consider how intersectionality creates overlapping systems of discrimination and disadvantage. Therefore, I was able to apply this lens in various fields and it enabled me to acknowledge intersectionality when working in the community.

Aspen: Having undergraduate research experience serves students well to potentially be involved in community-based research once they are working. We can adapt what we have learned in the academic-based research setting to perform research in the community. Beyond the research skills we have obtained, my involvement in Disability Studies has shifted my way of thinking. I have come to understand disability through a social lens, which has enabled me to broaden my view of social issues and identify the problems that exist on a systemic level.

Valentina: It has not only impacted how I view disability, but it has also given me the skills to use a critical lens in other areas, allowing me to better understand the various ways and degrees to which people face oppression. It has been a crucial part in helping me understand and critique society and broadened my perspective on how to advocate for society to be more accessible and accepting.

Aspen: Given the impact my research in Disability Studies has had on my identity and worldview, I can implement a critical Disability Studies lens to approach decision making. For me, I see myself being involved in creating change within the medical field. I want to be an agent of change within this field by expanding the view of disability beyond viewing it as a problem needing fixing. Further, disabling power dynamics and systemic racism exist in the medical field, and initiatives need to be taken to dismantle these problematic structures. Employing a critical disability lens and intersectionality is one way that I can begin critiquing systems and hopefully work to create needed change.


Undergraduate research is impactful on interpersonal and academic development, the development of a researcher identity, career decision, and can potentially lead to positive social change. For example, collaborating with group members, presenting at various conferences, and learning from colleagues at conferences enable the improvement of skills such as communication, time management, collaboration, and interpersonal skills. This is consistent with the literature on the impact that research has on developing such interpersonal skills (Bauer & Bennett, 2003). The benefits of such skill development positively impact academic course performance, extracurricular activities, graduate studies, and career choices.

Students have a role to fulfill as active citizens and agents of change (Loh, 2018; Reis, 2014). Our experiences as undergraduate research students reveal how student research opportunities can enable students to contribute to their role as active citizens by producing knowledge that adds to the existing body of literature covering the social situation of people with disabilities and can go on to guide policy development. Undergraduate research experiences equip students with an understanding of how knowledge production and knowledge dissemination opportunities can be used as tools to stand as allies and advocates in the disability studies field. This knowledge can be used beyond university experiences and applied in predominantly medicalized fields to dismantle the underlying biases, perceptions, and stereotypes of people with disabilities. Therein, exposing students at the undergraduate level to knowledge production, including research, could increase the number of students that go on to pursue academia, the number of students who perform research in the community after graduation, and the degree of success of undergraduate students. The knowledge produced by undergraduate students has the potential to create societal change, as such knowledge can inform policy development aimed at deconstructing social, cultural, and systemic barriers.


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International Journal of Disability, Community & Rehabilitation
Volume 19, Student Perspectives
ISSN 1703-3381