In eurekas and messes, students find direction, redirection

By: Mark Tarnacki
streams students at research lunch

Three students working in the water quality lab through the Vermont EPSCoR Streams Project to gauge the effects of global warming on local watersheds – from l-r, Natalie Ledue, Jaleeza Johnson and Jack Loomis – describe their work at the July 30 research lunch as President Jack Neuhauser listens in the background.

Donnie McGuirl '15 was pretty sure about his career path into health care, until summer research at Saint Michael’s College messed with his head.

President Jack Neuhauser was glad to hear that.

"I hope we messed with a lot of people's heads, and I hope it somewhat clarifies the kinds of interests you might have in the future in your own lives," the president told the nearly 40 summer researchers on July 30 as he wrapped up the last of three outdoor picnic lunches in the Teaching Garden, sponsored by Academic Affairs to encourage networking and allow progress reports.

Neuhauser was riffing on an amusing turn of phrase from McGuirl a few moments earlier as the Rhode Island native described the ups and downs of his biology lab work with Professors Dagan Loisel and Doug Facey on genetic changes in Lake Champlain fish. “Being able to propose your own research and kind of go rogue and do whatever you want, it’s a liberating feeling and kind of fun, so it's messing with me,” McGuirl said.

The president shared how he once did a research project as a young scholar that convinced him he never wanted to do it again, which was valuable in itself. "With this kind of work it’s a different environment, a different way to learn, even though it messes with your head occasionally -- but that’s what it’s intended to do. It’s important work for the college, for you, and for the world."

As at the first two lunches, the students’ reports ran the scholarship gamut:

Education major Shelby Knudson was helping underachieving fourth- and fifth-grade boys become better readers, and said they all were loving her book choice for them, titled Al Capone Does My Shirts, even though it challenges them on reading-level. “What I’ve learned for my future teaching is to keep them constantly moving, so I’ve implemented different reading stations to keep them engaged,” she said.

Kyra Payne and Shannon McQueen, working with Trish Siplon of political science on projects after they all visited Tanzania late in the spring, thought the chance to travel made the biggest difference in their research. Shannon said she would enjoy doing more in graduate school based on the experience, while Kira said that “to get down on the ground and meet these people makes it real and more interesting and important to me” than just dealing with statistics.

Neera BK said her interviews with Nepali refugee elders on their life experiences are fascinating and have set her on a path to work with the elderly beyond her project. “I’ve been offered an internship from Champlain Valley Agency on Aging and from Community Health Care which I hope to do,” she said, noting she’s already done 30 interviews, with many more elders wanting to be interviewed by her.

Three students working in the water quality lab through the Vermont EPSCoR Streams Project and the Biology Department – Natalie Ledue, Jack Loomis and Jaleeza Johnson – are trying to determine how climate change is affecting Vermont’s Winooski and Missisquoi River watersheds. Natalie said she is on a pre-health track, “and I think this has pushed me to look more at public and global health.” Jaleeza said she’s only going to be a sophomore, but “this has steered me away from environmental things. I love the environment, but I’m from a large city, and while it opened me up to being in touch with nature more, it’s not what I want to do.” Jack explained, “She really hates bugs!” He, too, enjoyed the outdoor aspect of the work, and while his career hopes are still hazy, he said, “I don’t see myself ending up in the cubicle.”

Emily Houle spoke of her project with Professor Lorrie Smith of English called “Kingdom Hollar: The Poetry and Voice of the Northeast Kingdom.” The idea was to work with youth who had grown up in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom as farming children -- as had Houle -- creating a curriculum unit to teach them speaking, poetry, and grammar. She worked with the youth from a Lyndon State  Upward bound program who were “used to living on land their family has lived on for generations, so history is something they’re reliving every day, and the attempt to leave can be emotionally and financially difficult.” While it amounted to “probably one of the most hair-raising experiences of my life,” she was more than pleased when some of the youth, her fellow  “rednecks,” stood and delivered during a poetry “slam” she put together and read poems or spoke. “They’re taking steps to go forward,” she said. The slam inspired Emily to sit down that night and write out six poems "and the whole thing came together as a cohesive whole.”

Kelsie Miller, working with Professor Doug Facey in biology, said she’s looked at 100 white perch stomachs this summer, “so there’s that” --  counting plankton through a microscope to survey the threat of spiney water fleas in Lake Champlain. It made her think she’d rather work with larger marine life and not have to look through a microscope.

At the end of the session, Angela Irvine, the college staffer who goes after grant funding for

Neera speaks at research lunch

such work, asked students to think of how they will best present their work, adding they should expect to be called on to do so more than once in the coming year. She told stories of recent graduates who either did research or drew inspiration from it, and now are having academic success directly linked to it – like Matt Rogers ’14, who worked on a Vermont Department of Justice research project last summer and now will be entering  an advanced degree program in sociology this fall; or Jake Trachey ’14, who majored in classics and history, worked in the college’s Institutional Research office honing his research skills for four years, and will be going to University of Vermont for a master’s in Latin and Greek with a focus on histiography.

Trachey was at the lunch, and said he was impressed by what he saw this year, as he was four years ago as a first-year when he got excited about his classics and history track, based on research presentations that he saw at the Academic Symposium. Said Trachey, “The interest these students expressed in research today was very exciting for me. They seemed to have gotten the key points of going through a higher level of research project and the difficulty of that. Of course, some are driven away,  but for the most part I heard that when they come to these roadblocks as they were calling them, they’re more excited to overcome them, rather than just stopping and saying that’s a dead-end. They like to move around the roadblocks, find new avenues of research. I find that truly hopeful or the future.”

Bottom right photo: Neera BK describes for fellow summer research students her work interviewing Nepali refugees.

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