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Building relationships, building scholars

July 7, 2008

Building relationships, building scholars

Academic posters, scholarly articles and videos illustrated the intellectual life of the university at the third annual Student-Faculty Research Reception. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the reception is just one venue where faculty and student researchers display their work and explain the intricacies of the collaborative research represented. The reception featured 24 projects from the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences divisions, and the School of Business.

“The heart of the university is its intellectual life, which is invisible,” said Patricia O’Connell Killen, provost and dean of graduate studies. “The research reception is one of the best ways we have of displaying the really exciting thinking and problem-solving and framing of new knowledge that our students engage in with faculty.”

Geosciences professor Jill Whitman added that tangible representations of the research work, such as posters and papers, are an important part of the process – not a diabolic plot hatched by professors to torture students. Decisions must be made about what to include and how to present the information.

More importantly, presentation opportunities provide students with experience explaining their work in a variety of settings, from PLU-sponsored events to professional conferences, said Neal Yakelis, assistant professor of chemistry.

“People tend to think of research as scientists in white lab coats locked up in a lab,” Yakelis said. “But the development of scientific ideas really happens in and out of the lab. You have to be able to communicate well to explain the significance of your work to colleagues and to the public.”

Students spend anywhere from a few months to a year or more working on projects with faculty. Many travel beyond the boundaries of campus to conduct research or share their work at professional conferences.

For example, Chris Hamre ’07 and chemistry professor Dean Waldow spent nearly two-and-a-half years examining polymer blends using dynamic light scattering and cloud point measurements. In that time, the two traveled to the University of Minnesota, where Hamre got hands-on experience using specialized equipment, and presented at a national conference in New Orleans.

According to Killen, one of the early fields to develop undergraduate collaborative projects was chemistry. It provided a model for similar endeavors in other disciplines, such as the social sciences and humanities. Undergraduate research is an initiative at colleges and universities across the nation, and it’s also a key element in PLU’s strategic plan, “PLU 2010: The Next Level of Distinction.”

Currently, three endowments for collaborative research exist: the Kelmer Roe Research Fellowship in the humanities, the Severtson/Forest Foundation Fellowship in the social sciences and the Undergraduate Research Fund in the natural sciences. Killen said the goal by 2010 is to have endowments for all PLU’s schools and divisions.

“Endowment funds are the engine behind us,” Killen said. The funds provide student and faculty stipends and cover research and travel costs.

“When donors choose a student-faculty research endowment as one of their options, they are making it possible for PLU to do the type of integrated teaching, learning, research, public engagement that is essential to the university carrying out its mission,” she continued.

Among the many donors in attendance were Naomi and Don Nothstein, founders of the Kelmer Roe Research Fellowship in the humanities. Named for Naomi’s father, who taught Greek, religion and philosophy at PLU, the fellowship is one of only two in the region dedicated to the humanities. The other is at Reed College in Portland, Ore.

The Nothsteins originally planned to fund a scholarship. Ultimately, they decided on the fellowship because of the collaborative nature of the research, and the benefits students reap from the scholarly work and the strong relationships they build with faculty members.

“To get into a good graduate school,” Don Nothstein said, naming some of the top schools in the country, “to have something like this, especially if it gets published, is necessary.”

Past Kelmer Roe fellowship recipients Doug Oakman, dean of the humanities division, and Ronan Rooney ’07 recently accomplished that feat when their co-authored paper, “The Social Origins of Q: Two Theses in a Field of Conflicting Hypotheses,” appeared in the summer issue of the Biblical Theology Bulletin.

These types of projects demonstrate a student’s ability to think like a scientist and connect theory to practice. Beyond that, it trains students to think critically.

“It’s one of the ways they develop habits of mind that are connected to being good citizens, too, because research questions are rarely neat,” Killen said.

The process of developing a hypothesis, and determining how to explore that question and collect data, may look like a method useful only in academic research. However, Killen contends it’s a central skill for people living in a democratic society and thinking through public issues.