Early-riser researchers share ups and downs

June 23, 2016

Based on student reports at a recent Tuesday morning breakfast in the International Commons, undergraduate summer researchers at Saint Michael’s College take a common approach to roadblocks in their work: Try something new and see what happens.

The same formula occurred to Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, when for the second “check-in” meal to tease out feedback from this year’s research cohort of just over 40 students, she arranged an 8 a.m. breakfast instead of the recently traditional outdoor lunch.

As usual, joining students were faculty mentors and supportive staff and administrators, including Talentino, who facilitated, President Jack Neuhauser, who made remarks, and Dean Jeffrey Ayres, who joined a large student group at a table.

Talentino asked students first to share around their individual tables of 5 to 10 people the biggest challenges that they have faced thus far. “What’s your biggest success or achievement?” she also asked, reminding them that “Sometimes small ones can be very important.” Each table’s task from there was to come up with a common general statement about where they are in their work and how they are feeling about it.

Before reporting out, Jonah Fanelli, who is studying Vermont’s landmark 46-year-old largescale development law, Act 250 under his mentor Richard Kujawa, professor of geography, told tablemates that as he’s pored  over court cases and amendments relating to Act 250, it’s been a challenge to rank the relevance and significance of each.

A different kind of difficulty faced Kathryn Petrozzo’17, a philosophy major examining “Free Will and Responsibility in the Neuroscientific Age,” particularly as it affects courtroom evidence and verdicts. She said she’s running into a wall when considering people without fully functioning capabilities and their capacity to be rational agents of deliberation — an issue where Aristotle’s concepts are in play for her.

Ben Cohen ’18 (environmental studies, Hebron, CT), was the first to stand and share a whole table’s common word: “anticipation,” since all three researchers at his table had collected “background stuff, and we’re kind of now waiting to get some data to get the results – the big wait.”

One student frankly shared that her group was finding “we don’t particularly love research.” Talentino said that was not uncommon, but that learning such a thing about oneself was actually positive if it offered time “to reflect on how it might affect your future. It might send you in one direction or another.”

Christopher Toomey (chemistry, Montague, MA), is working with mentor Christina Chant. While others at his table included non-scientists, “we are all moving slowly in our research, one step forward, two steps back, so we went with the common phrase “slow and steady,” he said. Talentino told him, “Speed is not the important thing – it’s taking whatever time it takes to learn it well. The process of research, more than the final product, is really what’s most important.”

“Determination” was the common word for the next group, reported Erin Burke ’17 (elementary education/Westford, MA), working with Jonathan Silverman on “Empowering Young Girls through innovative Curriculum.” She explained: “We all felt we were facing challenges we hadn’t seen when we started or wrote our proposals, but are all working on staying focused and fighting through those challenges.” Another student offered that “when there’s a wall in your way, we’re all finding you have to find your way up and over it with small steps.”

Ryan Stapleton’18 (Washington Towns, NJ/business administration), photo below left, said it was hard to read hundreds of pages of legal documents for his critical analysis of the Jay Peak EB-5 scandal. “Do you know who the villains are yet?” asked Richard Kujawa “We’re still working on it,” said Stapleton.

How many, Talentino asked with a wry smile, “found your research or project is going just exactly how you laid it out in your proposal?” She was not surprised when not one of the bemused students raised a hand.  What, then, were some specific challenges overcome or successes, she asked.

Molly Roush ’17 (biology, Rouses Point, NY, working with Dagan Loisel of the biology faculty) said that her lab work using light-sensitive materials often involves being in a room with shades drawn, which is tough on a beautiful summer day.

Daniel Brogan’18, (education, South Dennis, MA), studying “Student representation in education” under the guidance of Mary Beth Doyle of the education faculty,  counted it as a small triumph in discovering with his research that 16 or more states have seen students create substantial education policy for those states. “I’ve been humbled to see so many students making a difference despite the stigma that they are too young to handle these situations,” he said.

A student doing DNA-RNA nanomachine/origami folding research with Joanna Elis-Monaghan and Greta Pangborn of the mathematics and computer science faculties, respectively, shared that sometimes members of her group “still don’t know the tools you should be using, even if the solution is right in front of us.”  Another said she finds that setbacks make small victories even better.

President Neuhauser closed the program by sharing about his own early forays into serious research as a young physics student many decades ago, programming a computer for a mathematician at a time where a mistake meant having to go back and start over — perhaps days’ worth of work. “I decided early on this is not something I’d ever do in life, and I would spend the next 25 years of life doing exactly that kind of work,” he said, demonstrating that “the first months are not terribly predictive of how you’ll feel about it.”

“I hope you take it seriously and have some successes,” the president said. “Let’s keep telling stories like this, that’s what it’s all about. Thanks for doing the work.”

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