Year-round research on The Hill
For students who see their future in academics, summer, when they get a break from the seemingly endless number of tests, readings, and essays due for a full slate of classes, is the perfect time to focus completely on one project.
At Hampden-Sydney College, many students use this time to work directly with a professor and have an intellectual experience that is more intense than they have had before. Whether in the physical sciences or the humanities, these summer research projects often prepare students for a career of academic research. They lay the foundation of exhaustive research, intellectual curiosity, long-form writing, ruthless editing, and the satisfaction of completion.
More than a dozen students lived at Hampden-Sydney this summer and worked closely with professors in a variety of disciplines. Francis Polakiewicz '14 and Dr. Rachel Goodman (above) filled her lab with 200 turtles for an experiment investigating interactions between chemical exposure and a wildlife disease. The two were awarded a Hampden-Sydney Student Faculty Summer Research grant for the project, and Polakiewicz was also awarded a Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges Summer Undergraduate Science Research Fellowship Award.
In their experiment, juvenile red-eared slider turtles were exposed to combinations of the emerging infectious disease ranavirus and four commonly used herbicides. Dr. Goodman and Polakiewicz studied the growth and survival of the turtles for five weeks. Results of this study will help determine why some wild turtle populations carry the virus symptomatically, while others do not. This information could inform application practices of land managers.
Dr. Goodman knew the project would require a high level of commitment and attention to detail and looked for just the right student to help her. "I had Francis in my ecology class and I knew that he was a complete perfectionist and as a pre-health student, I knew that this kind of research would be a good match for him personally and professionally. Francis is one of the hardest working and most self-motivated students I have ever worked with. As the summer progressed, I worked alongside him most of the time. We had a very defined protocol because contamination is a big issue with this kind of research. However, I quickly realized that Francis' attention to detail was very high, so I could let him take on more tasks for himself."
In addition to his work in the lab, Polakiewicz was responsible for checking on the turtles every 12 hours. He says, "We would finish in the lab around 2:30; then I would go back to my room to enter data, have a few hours to myself before going back to the lab at nine that evening to check on the turtles again. There were nights when two or three had died and I would have to perform the necropsy immediately. I might not get back to my room until 11:00 before I could go to bed and start all over the next morning."
Aside from getting more comfortable in the lab, Polakiewicz learned a lot about research and the reality of science. "Some of the things we thought would happen didn't. Dr. Goodman had to remind me that science is not always full of grand conclusions."
Grand conclusions aside, Polakeiwicz wrote an extensive paper on the research and gained significant experience. "Increasingly students have to do research outside of the classroom to get into a graduate program," says Dr. Goodman. "We need the support to make our students competitive."
Each year at graduation, there are a few students who have completed the ROTC program and are commissioned as officers in the military. Next May, Andrew Craver '13 will be one of those students. While his position as graduating officer will make him rare enough, something else sets him apart even further. Craver is a pacifist seeking a position as an Army chaplain.
He used a summer project with Dr. David Higginbotham as the opportunity to examine the rhetoric of pacifism and to reconcile the conflicting nature of his own life choices.
"I wanted to write a paper about how you can be a pacifist in the Chaplain Corps, but I couldn't for a lot of reasons. Number one, the Army probably wouldn't let me in if they found out about it," he says with a laugh. "But chaplaincy is my calling. I see the Army as a mission field. I was going to have to come to terms with the fact that the Army is a brutality machine. I'm not okay with that, but I can be a beacon of peace and hopefully help a few soldiers along the way."
His research involved a variety of sources, from religious texts to YouTube videos of Army chaplains at work. "I would read for hours in the morning and write in the evenings until I started falling asleep."
Writing, of course, is a core component of any rhetoric project, which Dr. Higginbotham says can be any kind of essay. "Though Andrew had time to really think about himself, this was no narcissistic navel gazing. His work ethic is beyond compare. When he said he would read something, he read it; when he said he would write something, it was written. It was a real pleasure working with him."
Andrew was in JROTC in high school and when he was looking at colleges, his top choices were Hampden-Sydney and West Point. Despite not having much family connection to the military and a growing Moravian faith, which promotes pacifism, Andrew joined the ROTC at Hampden-Sydney. He had decided that he wanted to serve soldiers as an Army chaplain.
"After a lot of research and soul searching, I have decided how to reconcile my faith and my calling. I found my place in the Army this summer."
Dr. Higginbotham says, "The benefit to him was not to get to work with me this summer; it was to take advantage of what this institution has to offer: the library, the isolation, the housing. He had four months to do nothing but think about and write about this topic."
"I enjoyed working with Dr. Higginbotham," says Craver, "because I had already had him as a professor. He knew my background and what he was getting into with me. He probably knew exactly where I was going before I ever got started."
As a religion major, Andrew will have to write a thesis this year. He says this summer project has prepared him for the amount of work ahead. Having completed this paper, Craver has a greater understanding of exactly what goes into a comprehensive research project as well as a much better understanding of what his future holds.
Student-faculty research projects are typically done with the student and professor in the same place, but modern technology is changing that. Thanks to on-line research, the proliferation of email, and video chatting, Lewis Bell '13 (below at left) was able to work with Dr. Steele Nowlin while living and studying in Georgia.
An English and classical studies double major, Bell's summer research began as an investigation of the representation of war in American science fiction. After considerable research and guidance from his advising professor, Bell narrowed his topic down to investigating Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five as it relates to exposure treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Bell found that many American science fiction authors are war veterans and that there is a noticeable difference between them and non-veteran science fiction authors. The veterans, such as Vonnegut, use their stories as a way to discuss the troubling experiences they faced in war without having to tell their own stories. This third-person account of a first-person experience is a step in exposure therapy of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Nowlin says, "Research is a natural progression that often brings up as many questions as it does provide answers, so it was important for Lewis to refine his thesis. Of course, he will have plenty of time to continue looking into this subject. The summer research these students are doing can provide a source for additional research as they continue their academic career, certainly for their career at Hampden-Sydney and for graduate school as well."
Bell says, "I would spend the first day of each week collecting as many articles as I could. Then, throughout the week, I would read and write as my ideas formed, sending lots of emails back and forth with Dr. Nowlin. Thursday night I would send him my work for the week. Then, every Friday we would work through my ideas during a video chat."
"This is an uncommon process," admits Bell, "and I had to give the honors council many assurances that I would be doing the work I set out to do. Ultimately, the arrangement worked out for the best. For me, not having a professor looking over my shoulder made me work much harder and made this project much more student-driven. The onus really was on me to succeed."
Summer research is an opportunity for a student to immerse himself in a selected topic and devote time to completing a solid research project without the distractions and obligations that fill the typical academic year.
Many students at Hampden-Sydney enjoy this experience of an intensely focused academic project, and each year you can find more and more of them on The Hill during the long, slow days of summer. Thanks to the dedication of our faculty and the drive of our students, our quiet summer days are becoming filled with the hum of students and faculty hard at work ... together.