Undergraduate Research Abroad

Given the short duration of a study abroad program, students are strongly encouraged to select research topics that do not require IRB approval when doing research abroad

Program Requirements for Research Abroad

Parameters for conducting international research will vary depending on the program you have chosen. The most common undergraduate research program offered through Study Abroad is SIT. SIT allows students to pursue original research on a selected subject of interest to them within the program theme. Students are guided in their research by the program’s academic director and an Independent Study Project (ISP) advisor on site. The final project is generally 20-40 pages and presented to peers, academic staff, and interested members of the host community. In additional to typical research papers, projects can take the form of oral histories, case studies, or artistic presentations.

Steps in the Process

  • 6-12 months from departure: Visit the Study Abroad Resource Room (1111 University Capitol Centre) to learn more about programming that offers international research
    • The Resource Room is staff with friendly peer advisors from 9am to 5pm, Monday through Friday
  • 6-12 months from departure: Meet with the appropriate Study Abroad Advisor to discuss program application process and potential research topics of interest
    • You can schedule an appointment by stopping by the Study Abroad Office (1111 University Capitol Centre) or by calling #319.335.0353
  • 4-6 months from departure: Apply and receive your acceptance from the program (instructions will vary by program location and provider)
  • 2-3 months from departure: Attend Research Abroad Overview with University of Iowa IRB. After this session you will know for sure if you need to seek Iowa IRB Approval or not. If you need IRB approval, Study Abroad will assign you a Faculty Advisor to mentor you through the process and help you hone your research topic
  • 2-3 months from departure: Finalize study design and obtain approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) (if needed).  A link to the electronic IRB application system, HawkIRB, and many other educational resources are available on the Human Subjects Office web site. Students opting to do research with IRB approval will need to firmly establish their research topic and submit the IRB application at least 6 weeks before departure

Institutional Review Board (IRB) Approval

The University of Iowa has an ethical review committee called an Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB must review and approve any human subjects research projects conducted by UI faculty, staff and students, even when the project is conducted off campus or outside the United States (unless the UI IRB has an agreement to rely on another IRB to oversee the project).  Any project that meets the definition of human subjects research must obtain IRB approval prior to the start of any research activity (recruiting participants, collecting data, etc.) 

The Code of Federal Regulations for the Protection of Human Subjects (45 CFR 46) provides a definition of research and a definition of a human subject:

Research: A systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to general knowledge.

Key components of this definition:

  • A “systematic investigation” means data are collected in a systematic manner, i.e. the same questions or procedures for all subjects
  • Research is “designed” to answer question(s), test hypotheses, or find themes or patterns in the data gathered
  • Research results “contribute to generalizable knowledge” when a researcher draws conclusions or makes generalizations based on the information collected

Human Subject: A living individual about whom an investigator conducting research obtains

  1. Data through intervention or interaction with the individual, or
  2. Identifiable private information

Key points in the definition of human subject:

  • “Intervention or interaction”—Information is gathered directly through taking measurements, giving a drug or treatment, or changing something for the subject or their environment (intervention) or through interpersonal communication (interaction)
  • “Identifiable private information”—Working with existing data can be human subjects research if the records or data set contain identifiable private information, even if a research never interacts with a subject. “Identifiers” can be the individual’s name, address, contact information, date of birth, etc. or an ID code linked to those identifiers

Research projects conducted outside the United States require additional review and/or approval, in addition to IRB approval.  The researcher must either obtain local ethics board approval (in the country) or complete a local context review by someone who is knowledgeable about conducting research in that country (could be completed by someone in the U.S. or in the other country).  It typically takes 4-6 weeks to get IRB approval after the HawkIRB application is submitted to the IRB.  But it can take a considerable amount of time to obtain local ethics board approval or a local context review prior to the IRB submission.  Given the short duration of a study abroad program, students are strongly encouraged to select research topics that do not require IRB approval when doing research abroad.

When planning your research project, consider doing a project that focuses on general policies, practices or procedures or publically available information/data rather than on the opinions and experiences of individual study participants. Projects which collect information about policies, practices or procedures – even if the person who provided that information is identified – may not constitute human subject research and therefore would not require IRB review.

If you are unsure whether IRB approval will be required for your project, you should submit a Human Subjects Research Determination (HSRD) Form and an IRB Chair will make a determination. For more details, visit this page of the Human Subjects Office website. More information is also available in this document (also posted on the HSRD web page):

"Do I need IRB Review? Is This Human Subjects Research? A Guide for Investigators"

List of Research Ideas Less Likely to Require IRB Approval

  • Environmental effects
  • Role of institutional organizations or non-profits in assisting a certain population with an issue
  • Similarities and differences between Western views and local population views
  • Tourism effects
  • A case study of less than 5 people
  • Historical data looking at subjects no longer living
  • Literature review
  • Review of published or publically available data or resources
  • De-identified data or samples, provided by others
  • Quality Improvement/Quality Assurance projects for internal purposes only, not used to further scientific knowledge in a particular field of study

When Research Needs IRB Approval

  • Collecting information directly from a living individual for research purposes
  • Using identifiable, private information for research purposes
  • Research for Honors and Master's thesis and Doctoral dissertation projects that involve research with human subjects will always require IRB approval.

Talk to your Study Abroad advisor about your research ideas and they can help you think through the scope of your project.

Funding Opportunities

Undergraduates conducting research abroad are eligible to receive the Stanley Undergraduate Award for International Research. The deadline is in early February for the following summer, fall, and spring terms, interested students should plan accordingly. More information can be found here: https://international.uiowa.edu/funding/students/awards/stanley/undergraduate