New research chief builds a community

Think a Kelly Writers House for research. A central place where undergrads from every school can find advice on how to get involved in the creation of new knowledge — research.

It’s the new Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF), under the directorship of A rt Casciato.

“We picked him because he’s wonderful,” said Deputy Provost Peter Conn.
Shortly after the appointment last month, Casciato, 50, could barely contain himself about his newest job.

Situating CURF mid-campus, at the ARCH, 3601 Locust Walk, shows that this effort “to change the status quo at Penn” is a priority to the provost and the president of the University, Casciato said.

Casciato, the popular former house dean of Harrison College House, now has a chance to apply his community-building skills that worked so well in a college house setting to the entire university. And he can’t wait. “I see it as a place for students to get advice; I see it as a place for faculty and students. It’s a place to come to, and it’s a place to reach out from.”

His mission is to broker partnerships between undergraduates and faculty and make those partnerships look attractive.

So he’s starting by finding out what research is going on across the campus. “Wherever there’s a faculty member pursuing research, I’ll be there,” Casciato said.

He’s already found a successful model for writing undergraduate research into grant proposals in Professor of Nursing Linda Brown, who uses supplementary grants from NIH for undergraduate research. “Undergraduates are an untapped resource,” Casciato said.

Besides getting faculty to think in new ways about mentoring undergraduates, Casciato also said he needs to change the way Penn undergraduates think about themselves. “The students here see themselves as serious pre-professionals. I’m not sure as many see themselves as serious researchers, and as serious candidates for international fellowships.”

International fellowships is one of the issues that is driving the need for the center. Penn students tend not to apply for them.

“We don’t get the news out about the awards early enough or clearly enough,” he said.
He also said Penn students’ self-image was a factor that discouraged them from applying for international fellowships.

“Penn students tend to be leaders, entrepreneurs, people who can get things done. And those are good traits for winning research fellowships like the Rhodes.

“I don’t want to yell to Central Casting, give me a Harvard type,” when looking for international fellowship candidates on the Penn campus, Casciato said, The good candidates are Penn types, and they’re already here.

Fortunately, the center doesn’t have to start from scratch. Ben Franklin Scholars, General Honors, University Scholars and the program for international fellowships brought with them in their move to the new center their infrastructure, including the Research Book, which Casciato plans to expand into a university-wide database on research opportunities.

Casciato, who is teaching an American literature survey course this semester, was a tenured member of the English faculty at Miami University of Ohio when he took off for Seattle and took a job as assistant manager of a high-rise condominium. “I worked the customer service end, a head concierge. That made me uniquely qualified to be a house dean,” he said, laughing.

Casciato is a tell-all kind of guy who wears his heart on his sleeve. His qualifications aren’t all that he’s happy about. Now that he’s no longer living in a college house, he’s living near the University with long-time friend and partner Val Ross, the College of General Studies’ director of summer sessions, and their son Domenic, 4. He wants everyone to know this.


Originally published on October 26, 2000