The first time that Saint Michael's College's 2014 summer research students met over lunch early in June to compare notes on their proposed projects, the conversation was all about plans, hopes and expectations. At a mid-point check-in lunch on July 9, however, it was more about challenges, adjustments, life lessons and progress.
"How many of you think you will absolutely finish what you planned?" asked Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, who arranges the luncheons and funds many of the research projects through her office. As at the first gathering, she was leading a sharing activity in the campus "Word Garden": students pick a word on a rock that has meaning for their work and explain the connection to the group. The activity followed an outdoor lunch of burgers, hot dogs and berry shortcake next to the Teaching Gardens, with mentors, administrators and staff from interested College offices joining in, including President Jack Neuhauser.
Only a few hands went up in answer to Talentino's question about finishing what they had planned, making her main point for the day. "As your mentors will tell you, it takes longer than you think and goes on and on … but just because you don't finish what you thought, don't be discouraged," she said. "There always will be more that you can do. That's the exciting part of being a researcher and wanting to learn more."
Kelcey Briggs of Plattsburgh, NY, a rising senior working with Melissa Tomasulo in psychology, chose a rock with the word "person" since finding "persons" to be her test subjects was her major initial challenge. "But now I'm lucky enough to almost be at my goal of 30 participants and actually moving faster than I thought," she reported.
Chemistry major Greg Hamilton said over lunch that he had started his research directly after a delayed MOVE service trip to Utah in May working with shelter animals. At first he was going to do a spectroscopy project, he said, but then learned it would take too long for delivery of a laser that he would need, so he and mentor Bret Findley found new work with dyes in solvent that is valuable to Findley and to chemistry researchers in general. Now, he said, he will gather data with hopes of getting their results published. Hamilton chose the rock-word "surprise," since the project he ended up doing came as one to him.
Sean Morrissey, a history and economics double-major from Waterviliet, NY, studying "Insourcing and the Resurgence of the American Manufacturing Sector" with Economics Professor Herb Kessel, said he's been conducting a lot of interesting interviews while waiting for other people to get back to him, only a small frustration. He described how he's learning why companies decide to stay in the U.S. largely because of resources such as cheaper natural gas, along with other supply-chain issues.
Michelle O'Donnell has "hope" that her results will turn out as planned in her research with Biology Professor Dagan Loisel about bobcat genetics.
Isaiah St. Pierre said he'd hoped to study chemical aspects of ski wax but soon discovered that what he'd have to do to achieve his desired outcome would be "too time-consuming and a lot too expensive." So he, like Hamilton, found another project with Findley, designing a lab to focus on the properties of a special type of cells in solution. He chose "coffee" as his word-on-a-rock from the garden "because research doesn't get done without coffee!"
Matt Rogers, another Kessel economics student, is working with the Department of Corrections, he said, but also is employed officially by Saint Michael's for his internship on a recidivism study; he said that navigating two bureaucracies, a college and a governmental department, has left him with "a lot of question marks in the last few weeks."
Sam Blakely, working on a project with his mentor Jim Hefferon of the Math Department, had picked two stones, one with the word "true" and one with "false," explaining that "in math and computer work, the answer could be either one, so I couldn't pick just one."
Two students who'd gone to Tanzania with Trish Siplon of political science just before the summer took time to explain more about how they had gathered research data in Tanzania that they now are trying to analyze in order to figure out "why" -- which was Shannon McQueen's word, while fellow-Tanzania-traveler Kyra Payne's was "sweat" since that's what motivates her to get going on work once she starts getting nervous, she said, adding it also reflects the effort that the women she studied invest just for the simplest things like water.
How better to explain mysterious results in the lab, David Weiss wonders.
Emily Houle, working with Lorrie Smith of English to develop a "slam poetry" teaching unit for high school students in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, said she has completed the education component of her work, but still is working on the artistic aspect of her poetry unit. Her word-on-a-stone was "give," since, as she said, "I'm having a hard time getting the trust for giving these stories to everyone else to read" in the wider education community. However, "I'm getting though it" she said, with the payoff that her students are learning to share their rich life experiences in new and previously unexplored ways, "which is huge for them."
Chemistry researcher David Weiss, working with Christina Chant, picked the word "gnomes" because he felt it was the only explanation when one experiment works so well while a seemingly identical one beside it does not.
The summer researchers will have a third and final lunch in several weeks to share with one another how far they got, what they learned and where they might go from here.