Summer-research lunch logs progress, not perfection

July 10, 2015

Even setbacks are progress for those learning to do proper scholarly research.

“Too often with students starting research, when they don’t get expected results, they feel they’ve failed, but those are results in themselves” said Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, whose office funds much of the burgeoning summer research that has become so integral to Saint Michael’s College’s intellectual culture.

Talentino was addressing about 50 summer student researchers, the most ever, and about as many mentors and administrators/staff on June 30 in the Dion Center, at the second of three lunches that her office hosts. It’s a chance to check, respectively, on goals, progress/challenges and results at the start, middle and end of these projects that run the gamut of academic disciplines, but are weighted heavily toward science.

Miscues were as well-received as triumphs as students stood at their tables following the meal to give updates. An example was a student group informally calling themselves the “tooth team” – biology students working with Professor Paul Constantino.  Natalie Ladue’16 of Springvale, ME, reported “hitting a few speed bumps in recent weeks” in the polishing and grinding stages of teeth from the various mammals that they are studying.

“It worked perfectly in the beginning but hasn’t been working as well, so we’ve been testing different hypotheses to see why it’s not working so well,” she said. That day they were trying to test “the toughness of our teeth” as a possible cause. Said Talentino, “I think we all can agree that, sometimes, things that go one way in the beginning and then go another way is a big part of working on problem-solving.”

Chemistry researcher Zack Minior, working with faculty mentor David Heroux, tried to make his topic — “Dehydration of glycerol to acrolein using Zirconium substituted SBA-15” understandable to the wider group: He said his job when he got back to the lab that day would be figuring out what to do “when you take what’s supposed to be white powder out of the oven and it’s brown” in your chemistry project.

Anika Bieg ’18 of Mashpee, MA, sat at a table that included President Jack Neuhauser, and shared with him and others at the table about her Environmental Studies research into nitrogen pollution’s effect on trees, sponsored by Trustee Gerry McKenna’69.  President Neuhauser, like several  Board of Trustees members besides McKenna, is personally sponsoring another student researcher this summer – in his case Rahela Mohammad Akbar ’16, a biology student who is writing an autobiographical memoir reflecting life growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, before coming to the U.S. in hopes of becoming a physician. Her mentor is Elizabeth Inness-Brown of the English faculty, an accomplished author of fiction herself.

English major Julia Wagner ’18 of South Burlington is writing about women doing welding in the U.S. in World War II, based on interviews with a  local woman in her 90s. She spoke of the challenges of accessing and recording memories and a “winding road” of related stories as one tale reminds her interview subject of something else. “Compiling and organizing what she’s s giving me is teaching me about issues of oral history,” Wagner said.

Rachelle Chevalier ’16 of St. Albans described her philosophical research on the ethics of Aquinas and the virtue of continence. A practical issue is that her mentor, humanities professor Nicholas Kahm, has been in Europe, but they stay in touch well by email if need be while he’s there. She’s in a translation stage from Latin to English, she said, and just about ready to begin “the philosophical heavy-duty legwork now.”

An eclectic group of seven collaborators from different majors are in united cause with Professors Joanna Ellis-Monaghan and Greta Pangborn on origami folding for nanomachines, and in further collaboration with the California Institute of Technology. The students’ majors range from physics and computer science to economics, environmental studies, biochemistry, physics and mathematics. Ellis-Monaghan described some of the national-security issues in play for such esoteric work; a student showed a slide of how the group uses items as simple as balloons and tape to help them depict and understand the forms they are trying to construct.

Other larger collaborating groups include seven students with EPSCoR internships for water quality research with Professor Declan McCabe; and six more in biology with Professor Mark Lubkowitz, using National Science Foundation Grant funds to investigate plant genetics. Their project integrates undergraduates at major research universities and Saint Michael’s into all aspects of the research.

Even solo researchers without larger formal support groups get help from fellow students – such as Michael McNally ’16 of Queensbury, NY. He’s analyzing factors related to educational outcomes in his economics project under Professor Patrick Walsh, and was glad to be at a lunch table with some education students and professors who challenged him to think in ways he hadn’t considered before from his more economics-centered standpoint.

The third and final research lunch will be on Tuesday, July 14, with a focus on summaries of outcomes and challenges met, Talentino said.

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