Word-rocks, slime and Virginia Woolf: Summer research throttles up

By: Mark Tarnacki
Word Garden researchers

Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, talks with summer research students in the Word Garden on Monday, June 16.

About 40 summer-research students representing biology, chemistry, English, economics, psychology and education foraged in the campus "Word Garden" on June 16 for just the right etched-in-stone descriptors of their work. Selections included:

  • "Community" to describe a Tanzanian health-care project that began with a short trip to Africa with political science Professor Trish Siplon, unpacking for Shannon McQueen'15, a new notion of a community and its needs.
  •  "Wonder" to describe the book title that education major Shelby Knudson '15, with guidance from Professor Kristin Gehsmann, will use to get 5th-grade boys interested in reading. She also wanted to capture the "wonder" for new ideas and worlds that she hopes to inspire among the boys in an Essex program by immersing them in literature.
  • "Hunger" for biology student Amanda Carpenter '16, who will be looking with Professor Donna Bozzone at "the intelligence of the food-foraging strategy of a particular slime mold with no brain."

The students, their faculty mentors and administrators just had completed an outdoor noon meal of shish-kebob and dessert around four long tables on the sunny green beside the Teaching Gardens between Saint Edmund's and McCarthy Halls. Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, explained that this Word Garden exercise is a recent tradition for Saint Michael's summer scholars at the first of three lunchtime progress-check-ins that her office schedules through the summer so everyone can share ideas and stimulate dialogue.

"It's one of my favorite activities," said President Jack Neuhauser who sat among the students as they ate to hear informally what those around him were up to. "It's a good idea because the luncheon is getting people to talk to each other, trying to understand. It's still early of course, but it's very interesting, and mentored research for undergraduates is one of the things we do best."

Also attending from Academic Affairs were the college's outgoing and incoming academic deans, Jeff Trumbower and Jeffrey Ayres respectively, plus representatives from Institutional Advancement, whose efforts help fund such research, and from Admissions and Marketing, who both use tales of unique research experiences to recruit top scholars and attract favorable media attention for the college.

Talentino heard over lunch from Neera B.K., a student from a Burlington-area native Nepali family. For her anthropology research under Professor Adrie Kusserow, Neera is interviewing elders from local Bhutanese refugee families whose language she speaks. "The results of my interviews can be used by a community health group," she told Talentino, adding that all her subjects have interesting stories, even though some details are "brutal" in the hardships endured, causing her to marvel at the persevering human spirit. Neera said that even when her project is done she plans to maintain personal connections to these families she has come to care about so deeply.

Persevering research student

A student tells fellow summer researchers how she plans to "prevail" in her work.

After the lunch, students at Talentino's prompting moved toward the nearby gravel-filled Word Garden, where serious or whimsical words and phrases are etched upon relatively larger rocks, and passers-by are free to assemble thoughts. Once they'd found "their" word, the researchers formed a circle just inside the peaceful garden's shrub-lined perimeter and one-by-one talked about the joys and challenges of exploring topics of personal interest in-depth with a one-on-one professor-mentor.

Their capsule summaries revealed a breadth of topics across academic disciplines. A good number of the summer researchers are scientists working on biology or chemistry projects as has been true for many years past. Biology topics under Bozzone, for instance, included age difference in orthodontic treatment; a study of employee injury rates and workplace efficiency; and a correlation of THC intoxication and sudden cardiac death.  Chemists working with Professor Bret Findley talked about enzymes and biodegradation -- as one put it to some laughs, "from one really long chemical name to another really long chemical name."

Professor Mark Lubkowitz has eight students working with him on plant genetics, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. Katie Chang, a lab technician for Vermont EPSCoR, runs a water quality lab and is supervising three students in collecting water samples from Vermont waterways, which makes for enjoyable field adventures. Biology chair Declan McCabe said most years, he also has a UVM student doing zebra mussel research in Lake Champlain, and this year a Middlebury student doing data analysis on sediment -- all mixed in with the Saint Mike's researchers filling Cheray Science Hall's labs. "We're not getting too bored!" he said.

From the World Garden, chemist Greg Hamilton chose the word "much" since "there's much to learn and lots of work still to be done." Another science student chose a simple question mark "because that's what research is all about – I don't know how it's going to go … It could go either way."

Kelcie Miller '16 spoke of her work with Doug Facey on zooplankton and spiny water fleas. English major Corey Warren '16 told of his work with Christina Root on Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" in coming to understand better "how we occupy the abstract realms of time, space and through them find a sense of our private and public self, and what effect does history have on our conceptions of individuality."

Historically, some of the earliest summer research at Saint Michael's was through grants from the longstanding Social Science Research Center, explained economics Professor Herb Kessel of the center, and this year, student economists are exploring topics ranging from a resurging manufacturing sector in the U.S. (Sean Morrissey'16 with Kessel)  to special education reforms in Vermont (Katelyn Heath '14 with Patrick Walsh) to private prisons (Ben Rosbrook'15, whose special rock-word was "persons," since,  he explained, "there's a lot of them in prisons.") Kelcey Briggs of psychology, working with mentor/Professor Melissa Tomasulo, told fellow students she was looking for test-subjects as she pursues a study on stress, if any cared to volunteer.

Near the end of the sharing, everyone noticed that even Talentino had picked up a stone from the Word Garden: "standout."

"You're all standouts in my mind!" she explained, thanking them for "spending your summer working on these really fascinating projects." She urged students to think about what their next step might be with what they learn, whether it's attending a conference to present a paper or perhaps getting their results published. "We're here to support you even after you're done," she said. "It's a really great privilege you have, so make the most of it."

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