Stepping Stones and Capstones
By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Jay Adkins
Andrew Howie ’12 is serious about his education. The English/Greek and Roman Studies double major is taking piano lessons, not just for fun but to make his mind more “orderly and harmonious.” By studying three different languages—Greek, Latin and Hebrew—during the same semester, “I trained myself to maintain separate and distinct ideas, hold different world views in my mind simultaneously.”
He does not take summers off. As he considered his options for summer 2010, he thought he might like to do research at Rhodes.
“I have several friends in the sciences who work with professors in their labs,” he says. “They are paid and have the opportunity to enhance their skills. I just assumed there would be similar opportunities in the humanities.” He knew about the Rhodes Institute for Regional Studies (RIRS), but his interests stretch far beyond the Mid-South region. He was disappointed to discover there were no other opportunities available to him. Enter the new Rhodes Fellowship Program.
Howie is far from a troublemaker. However, he’s not one to accept defeat without at least trying to make a difference. He took his concern to History Professor Tim Huebner and Professor Susan Satterfield of Greek and Roman Studies, one of his majors. There he hit pay dirt.
Professor Huebner, who founded RIRS, is passionate about undergraduate research and was eager to participate in the fellowship program.
“Rhodes has an outstanding reputation for bringing science students into laboratories where they do original research and, as a result, co-author articles and present papers and posters at national and international conferences,” he says. “I wanted to give similar opportunities to students in the humanities and fine arts. That’s where the idea for RIRS came from. Students need to understand the value of research—discovering something new, engaging with such depth to see why issues are so complicated, creating knowledge on their own.
“When someone like Andrew approaches you, you sit up and take notice. The fellowship was a way to assist an eager, talented self-starter who wants to learn what it’s like to be an academician.”
The History Department has an agreement with Greek and Roman Studies to teach ancient history courses, so collaboration with Professor Satterfield was natural. As discussions progressed and a proposal took shape, the goals broadened. As the History Summer Research Fellow, Howie worked on three distinct projects—research for Professor Huebner on the friendship between Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederate States of America; copyright research for Professors Dee Garceau-Hagan, Jeff Jackson and Robert Saxe; and with Professor Satterfield on her study of divination practices in ancient Rome. In the course of all that he has made a personal breakthrough.
At the beginning of the summer Howie was distressed that his wide-ranging interests might not fit into the existing structures of the academy. In thinking of graduate study he said, “I’ll have to find a place where I can have control over my course of study without being forced into some departmental mode.” To his relief, he determined through conversations and mentoring that he wants to study the ancient Near East and that there are programs for doing so.
So it appears that Howie will emerge from his summer fellowship with a scholarly paper co-authored with Professor Huebner, perhaps another with Professor Satterfield, and the understanding of how the copyright system works, a necessity for any scholar. Oh, and a plan for what he wants to do for the rest of his life. Not bad for a summer job.
But, of course, it wasn’t a summer job. It was a fellowship. According to the newly appointed Director of Fellowships at Rhodes Dr. Scott Garner, “Fellowships offer students the opportunity to integrate their classroom experiences with those that occur elsewhere in order to make both aspects of their lives more fulfilling as they refl ect on how those experiences affect both themselves and others.”
There have been similar opportunities on the Rhodes campus for years. Dr. Sid Strickland ’68, Rockefeller University’s vice president and dean of graduate and postgraduate studies, is fond of recounting how Chemistry Professor Harold Lyons mentored him and prepared him to do research at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I had a similar experience to what Rhodes students have there now,” he says.
Several more formal fellowship-style programs have been added through the years (see sidebar on p.14). What’s new, according to Garner, is infrastructure.
In fact, the new and improved approach to experiential education now being practiced at Rhodes is the result of several years of discussion and an intensive study mandated by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) as part of its reaffirmation of the college’s accreditation. According to Dr. Robert Strandburg, associate dean of academic affairs for curriculum who led the SACS-mandated Quality Enhancement Project, “We have emerged with an approach to experiential education that can serve as a model for higher education.”
A model was needed. There are many buzzwords that try to describe what Rhodes includes in a fellowship—engaged learning, making the liberal arts more practical, learning outside the classroom, etc.—but most programs have been ad hoc. Until now, there has been no rubric.
The Rhodes approach has distinct characteristics. Fellowships fall into five categories—civic engagement/ service; creative activity; internship; student research; and study abroad. Fellowship mentors must commit to fostering five student learning outcomes:
1. Integration of factual knowledge, fundamental principles, and/ or specific skills learned in the classroom with the fellowship activity
2. Strengthening analytical (or, in the arts, also creative) abilities toward establishment of a professional identity
3. Evidence of participatory, collaborative, and/or team-oriented learning
4. Personal and social development
5. Development of critical reflection skills
The last one is particularly important.
“We want the fellows to reflect continually while they’re doing their work,” Scott Garner says. “They must probe the meaning of why they are doing what they’re doing, what they get from it and what others get from it, and why it’s meaningful.”
Finally, each fellowship participant is assessed by three separate instruments: one designed to assess the five learning outcomes developed by a committee of faculty, staff and students; another developed by Rhodes and three other institutional partners to assess best practices; and a third that draws on the National Survey of Student Engagement. It is also noteworthy that the college has dedicated a full-time professional staff position and a faculty/staff/ student committee to this important initiative.
In addition to Andrew Howie, 135 other students participated in summer fellowships directed by faculty and staff members from a variety of disciplines.
Jake Smith ’11, under the direction of Professor Victor Coonin, chair of the Art Department, is trying to solve a mystery. The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, located across the street from Rhodes, is home to a portion of the worldfamous Samuel H. Kress Collection, the bulk of which forms the heart of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Professor Coonin says of the 28 paintings and two sculptures at Brooks, “While this collection is acknowledged as among the finest of its kind, the works have received only sporadic scholarly attention.” He proposes to change that with ongoing student fellowships.
“I use the collection regularly in teaching,” Professor Coonin says. “Each student is assigned a work to research, and every time at least one of them comes up with something I’ve never thought about—a new path to research or a new way to understand the painting, and they get the satisfaction that comes with the sense that their contribution has made a lasting impact. This is the kind of fellowship that can go on and on, and each one will change drastically based on the interests and research skills of the fellow.”
Jake Smith, the current fellow, plans to be an art historian. His primary interest is in 19th- and 20th-century modernism.
“I had never paid much attention to the Renaissance,” he admits.
Coonin skillfully connected Smith’s interest in music to an obscure painting that portrays a figure holding an unrecognizable musical instrument. Smith’s task is to identify it and he’s loving the hunt.
“I’ve found a graduate thesis from Australia that helps and I know the chair of the Musicology Department at the University of Memphis. I’ve asked him and others to help. We’re narrowing it down,” says Smith, who hopes to broaden his credentials as an art historian and “at the very least update the bibliography at the museum so those who follow me can contribute more. As a researcher I feel more responsibility than I do as just a student. I’m trying to make a personal connection with the artist to tell the story. I want to say something different, to help people see in a different way.”
Two Biology professors, Sarah Boyle and Laura Luque de Johnson, and a postdoctoral fellow, Jon Davis, teamed up to propose Integrative Research Training in Biological Subdisciplines, a yearlong fellowship for Matt Grisham ’13, Anna Johnson ’11 and Adiha Khan ’13. Their goal is to determine the impact of urbanization on snake populations using parasites as biomarkers of the environment.
Professor Luque de Johnson, a molecular biologist, says, “Jon came up with the idea. Reptiles are his field. Parasites are mine. Sarah Boyle, who has expertise in GIS (Geographic Information System, dealing with data linked to locations), will help us see spatial patterns across the area. The students will be introduced to several areas of science.”
All the students—and all the professors—go to the field to collect snakes and vectors (mosquitoes, mites and ticks), and all learn from each other.
Jon Davis says, “We take the data to the lab and Adiha analyzes them. I’m unfamiliar with molecular analysis, so I’m learning along with the students. And because there’s not much known about reptile parasites, we’re adding to the literature.”
Which is exactly what is exciting to Matt Grisham.
“I really like the sense of discovery. This is so much better than learning out of a textbook. I’m a hands-on learner. Give me real life rather than theory anytime.” Even if it means comingling with snakes and insects? “It’s actually very cool,” he affirms.
Environmental Science Fellows Erik Campbell ’12 and Marshall Friskics- Warren ’12, under the supervision of Chemistry Professor Jon Russ, are also looking at the world in a different way.
“We’re mapping the distribution of lead in Memphis soils,” Professor Russ explains. “Almost all urban environments are contaminated with lead, and that’s hard on children’s mental development. Our ultimate goal is a distribution map for Memphis.”
Not an easy task. It involves devising a sampling strategy and testing it to be sure it gives an accurate picture. Then the real work begins: long, hot days of trudging through neighborhoods pulling soil samples. Erik Campbell, who’s new to Russ’s team, says, “No one has done anything like this before, which is awesome. It’s about a thousand times better than working as a lifeguard.”
Marshall Friskics-Warren is also charged about the work. “I’m in premed, so the idea of improving the health of children is great. I love the point when the numbers start coming together and a picture emerges.”
Professor Russ, too, is excited about the project.
“It fits perfectly with what we do in the sciences by giving students an opportunity to apply their classroom knowledge. They are learning how a scientific project works and adding to the body of knowledge instead of just resynthesizing others’ knowledge.”
Stephen Bailey ’12, working with Mathematics and Computer Science Professor Betsy Williams-Sanders, spent the summer learning about virtual environments or, as he put it, “Playing with expensive toys. It’s very cool. I thought virtual environments existed only in the movies.” Instead, he’s learned that the technology is used to train firefighters without exposing them to danger and teaching pilots to fly expensive aircraft.
Professor Williams-Sanders charged Bailey with designing his own experiment and assigned him a pile of readings to help narrow his focus. She also took him to Vanderbilt University to experience the use of a motion capture system, a body suit with sensors that allows the experimenter to see him- or herself in the virtual environment.
Bailey was closing in on his project definition as we went to press. It will have to do with testing distances in a virtual environment, which shortens distance perception.
“I’m getting a chance to learn how to be a scientist!” he marvels. “I’m doing research and actually planning an experiment. I feel like I’m accomplishing a lot.”
Nuclear physicist Deseree Meyer has included students in her research every year she’s been at Rhodes. She’s passionate about mentoring because, she says, similar experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student gave her investigative experience and enabled her to build a network of professional contacts that led to two major grants to fund her and her students’ current work.
The first grant stems from a collaboration among Rhodes, the University of Richmond and scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, CA, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA. The goal of this project is to investigate methods for studying reactions in heavy nuclei. This work helps to ensure the safety of our nation’s nuclear stockpile.
The second project is also a collaboration, this time with a consortium of undergraduate institutions and scientists at Michigan State University to build an addition to the Modular Neutron Array (MoNA) housed at MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. The addition will detect the neutrons emitted from decays of radioactive nuclei.
“We’re always looking for clues about the shape,” Professor Meyer explains. “Most are deformed somewhat. Very few are spherical like the ones you see in textbooks.”
Students constructed and tested a number of complete tube-like neutron detector modules, each about 6½ feet long, 4 inches wide and 4 inches tall. The members of the consortium hope to contribute to the scholarship about exotic nuclei, answering outstanding questions in nuclear science such as the limits of nuclear stability for neutron-rich nuclei.
Neither grant contained funds for travel, and Professor Meyer wanted to take her student researchers to Michigan State for a firsthand look at MoNA to help them with the task of building a neutron detector at Rhodes. So she applied for, and received, fellowship funds to supplement her grants. In the process, she changed the way she interacts with her students. “The fellowship model helps to formalize the process and think about what the students take away from their experience,” she says. “It has helped me refine my thoughts about student learning.”
Nick Badger ’12 and Matthew Miller ’13, who holds the Jack H. Taylor Scholarship in Physics, say the firsthand look at MoNA and Meyer’s mentorship have been invaluable.
“We got to see the MoNA in action,” Badger says. “We got to run an experiment and take data.”
Miller says Professor Meyer’s approach to mentorship has resulted in maximum learning. “She’s not bossy at all. She lets us make mistakes and fix them.”
Both say this summer was a landmark experience: “Science without the answers in the back of the textbook is harder but more rewarding,” Badger says. Miller adds, “You know how you sit in class and wonder, ‘How will I ever use this?’ Well, we’re finding out.”
“Neither method has been studied before,” says Professor Meyer. “That makes this research fun but intimidating.”
Theatre Professor David Jilg ’79 is mentoring Lee Bryant ’11, who in turn is guiding the work of three RIRS fellows in the production of a documentary video about the 30- year history of McCoy Theatre.
“Compressing 30 years into 15 minutes is not easy!” Bryant says. “This project is fun and it’s stressful.” The theatre fellow divides her breakthroughs into three primary categories:
1. Little-known or misunderstood areas. “There was a time when students weren’t in most of the shows,” she explains. Through the students’ research, they came to understand that was Professor and McCoy Creative Director Tony Garner’s attempt to engage the Memphis community in the theatre. “I had perceived that as a negative but now I understand it was an administrative strategy,” she says.
2. Technical Skills. “We learned to use all the fancy cameras and to edit online.”
3. Then there’s the deeper knowledge. “It’s so great to talk with the McCoy alums and to understand that we all share this sense of, ‘McCoy is a home away from home but not a place to hide; a place to feel safe and be pushed farther than we thought we could go.’
“This has given me a greater appreciation for what McCoy means to the campus and to those who pass through,” Bryant concludes. “Knowing that students and alums can have such an impact inspires me, makes me think I, too, can be an adult, take initiative and create something that lasts.”
Professor Jilg, too, is pleased with the project.
“We’ve shown that the role of the student manager can be effective if it’s done correctly. Lee worked on a documentary history of Memphis’ Circuit Playhouse last year in the Regional Studies Institute, so that gave her experience working with the parameters of documentary and interviews. She’s a rising senior and a natural leader. That, too, is important.”
Professor Jilg says he wouldn’t be surprised if more RIRS fellows develop their projects further in follow-up fellowships.
“These are wonderful opportunities for students to engage in research and creative activity that connect to but go beyond their classroom work in endeavors that they and others will benefit from greatly. Some will use their fellowship as a stepping stone to honors research or some other project. For others it will be the capstone of their college experience. It all depends on where the student is in his or her career.”
Director of Fellowships Scott Garner couldn’t agree more.
“One reason I’m passionate about this job is that I had a fellowship-type experience as an undergraduate that has meant so much to me personally,” he says. Garner, a math major, was offered a summer research position by a Greek and Roman Studies faculty mentor. He immersed himself in it and didn’t let go at the end of the summer. He changed his major and the research became his senior project that was published in a scholarly journal. In graduate school he used parts of it as his doctoral dissertation. Now he has a book on the subject pending publication at Oxford University Press.
“I’ve seen the trajectory and I know what this can do for students. They get to take all the knowledge with them and it will enhance both their wisdom and their life experience.”