Taking It on the Road
By Dean Galaro ’11
Photography by Justin Fox Burks
What student would willingly add more work to an already rigorous academic schedule? Surprisingly, quite a few Rhodes students do, and their extra work is paying off with opportunities to conduct research in the cutting edge of their fields and present their findings along with the best and brightest. Rhodes builds some of these opportunities on campus with fellowships and events like the annual Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity Symposium (URCAS), but many students take their independent research off campus and even internationally. Some might think that research is something only faculty do, but there are myriad ways for students of every major to get involved in assisting a professor or pursuing their own investigations.
Reaching for the Stars
Four years at Rhodes give students a lot of time to do research. Physics major Josh Fuchs ’11 has certainly done that. He has worked with NASA, presented his findings in Croatia and researched at observatories in Massachusetts and Hawaii.
At the suggestion of Professor Brent Hoffmeister, the Van Vleet Fellow in Physics, in 2008 Fuchs became a member of a six-student team that would participate in NASA’s Reduced Gravity Student Flight Opportunity Program, building and testing an experiment on binary electrostatic orbits. That meant spending part of the summer at Rhodes helping build the apparatus for the experiment, then taking it to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and flying it aboard the “Weightless Wonder,” NASA’s plane that creates a zerogravity environment by climbing and falling in the air. The wooden structure built for the experiment can still be seen in Rhodes Tower.
After doing something like that, more research is hard to ignore.
“The microgravity project got me hooked,” Fuchs says. “It was great from a few perspectives: figuring out how you do research, applying to NASA, building the apparatus, running the experiment and then analyzing the data so we could write the paper that has since been published.”
Fuchs presented the team’s findings at the International Conference of Physics Students in Split, Croatia. One of only two U.S. students to attend the conference, he got to meet physicists from around the world.
“The social aspect of the conference was a big part of it,” Fuchs recalls. “There were a lot of presentations, but people were also there to make friends from different places, to learn from each others’ experiences.”
Fuchs spent the next summer at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, MA. “I joined six other students from all over the U.S.,” he explains, “doing astrophysical research in all areas of astronomy.”
That summer had a big impact on Fuchs, who wants to be a professor one day, teaching at a college like Rhodes, or working at an observatory like Maria Mitchell.
“I liked it there because it was a small environment and we were doing really cool research. But there was also the educational component: talking to visitors about what we were doing and helping them to understand it.”
The next summer was spent at the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Hawaii. Along with nine other students from around the country, Fuchs researched galactic winds, which are produced by starbursting galaxies. Galactic winds are outflows of gas and dust from a galaxy.
“Understanding the roles of different components of the wind helps us understand what is happening in the galaxy as a whole,” he says.
While in Hawaii, Fuchs worked with Professor David Rupke. “It was somewhat a matter of coincidence that we got to work together before he joined the faculty here this fall,” recalls Fuchs. “I have continued to do research with him here, partially because we were able to work together last summer.”
That’s a lot of research in only a few short years, but it has been well worth it for Fuchs.
“It’s not easy, but it’s very educational. You’re creating new knowledge. It can be frustrating, but when you look back on it, it’s a great experience and you learn a lot.”
You Really Have To Enjoy It
An important way Rhodes professors help students explore their own academic interests can be through a simple suggestion—applying for a grant, or even attending a program at another institution. Kaetlin Taylor ’12 got her start with a recommendation from Mathematics Professor Eric Gottlieb to apply to a National Science Foundation (NSF) program.
“This past summer I did Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program sponsored by the NSF, held at Cal State, San Bernardino,” Taylor explains.
Differential geometry might make some people’s eyes glaze over with memories of high school math, but it has become Taylor’s primary research passion. So much so that she plans to pursue graduate school after Rhodes and possibly continue with differential geometry as a career in research or teaching.
“I hadn’t thought of doing research until Professor Gottlieb suggested it to me, but I think it’s important to experience it before you put in all that time and work in graduate school then find out you don’t like it.” She speaks from experience. Before coming to Rhodes Taylor wasn’t even sure she wanted to study math, but once she got to know the faculty and the students in the small department she was hooked.
She had never taken a differential geometry class before beginning the NSF program, but the more she learned about it, the more she liked it. In addition, applying for the program may have seemed like a shot in the dark at the time, but it became much more than that as she, too, learned how to write a proposal, conduct research, then write and present her work.
With NSF paying her travel expenses, Taylor had a great experience in California, but it wasn’t all fun in the sun.
“I worked nine-to-five, five days a week over the summer,” she fondly recalls, but that’s a small price to pay for opportunities to research something you love. “You really have to enjoy it and keep doing it, and I think it was worth it when I presented at the end of the program.”
Next on the calendar for her was a presentation in New Orleans during the first week of January 2011 at the Joint Mathematics Meetings of the Mathematical Association of America (which sponsored her travel to the conference) and the American Mathematical Society. Not only did Taylor present her research to hundreds of her peers and experts, but there was a judged competition with cash prizes.
A lot of work goes into independent academic research, but that’s what keeps students coming back for more, not to mention the fresh ideas and motivation they get from other researchers and areas of study.
What About Shakespeare?
It’s not surprising that most people associate research and presentation with the sciences, but what about the social sciences and the humanities? More specifically, what about Shakespeare? In October 2010 English major Andrew Miller ’11 presented his paper “To Stand Upon My Kingdom Once Again: The Ethics of Fiscal Monarchy in ‘Richard II’” as the only undergraduate at a Yale University graduate conference titled “Shakespeare and Renaissance Ethics.”
It began after Miller completed Professor Scott Newstok’s “Green Shakespeare” course in spring 2010. The course, which explored how ecological concepts and “green” issues apply to the interpretation of works by William Shakespeare, was followed by an international symposium at Rhodes. Newstok suggested that Miller submit his final class paper to the Yale conference.
With that in mind, Miller retooled his paper to make it more accessible for an audience that had not been in the class with him, just as he had done several times before for URCAS and British Studies at Oxford symposia at Rhodes. Plus, he had gained earlier research experience his freshman year at Rhodes through the British Empire learning community, headed by English professor and British Studies Dean Michael Leslie. Miller says that while his interest in English began in high school, the shift toward wanting to do serious research began then and there.
“All those experiences were great practice,” he says.
Still, Yale wasn’t an easy crowd for the only undergraduate in the building. But Miller was ready.
“It was definitely intimidating at first, hearing that this person was finishing up his dissertation or that person was three years into her Ph.D,” says Miller, “but as soon as the first panel got going I saw and felt that this was not so different from anything I’d already done—I knew I was prepared for this. A couple of people remarked that they were surprised at how much I seemed to take to the format, or how much I seemed to fit in.”
All thanks to the myriad resources available to Rhodes students, such as the Iris A. Pearce Shakespeare Endowment, which supports research and events related to William Shakespeare, and the Rhodes Student Travel Fund, which sent Miller to the Yale conference.
From Start to Finish
Lest anyone think that all research relationships between professors and students last only a semester or a summer, many collaborations continue throughout the years a student is at Rhodes. One such team is Sarah Allen ’11, C. L. and Mildred W. Springfield Honor Scholarship recipient, and Anna Kolobova ’11, Neuroscience majors who have been working for three years with Psychology Professor Dr. Kimberly Gerecke, one of the faculty running the Neuroscience program. In November 2010, Allen and Kolobova went to the Society of Neuroscience annual conference in San Diego.
“Our research involved neurodegeneration caused by stress and how exercise can protect from that degeneration,” reports Kolobova.
For a budding neuroscientist and an aspiring doctor, the conference, with 35,000 attendees, was the best place not only to present research, but to see the results of other people’s work. It also put them alongside the top minds in the field, an opportunity that might seem unreachable for undergraduates.
“You’re presenting not just to graduate students, but professors, professional researchers and top neuroscientists in the country,” explains Allen, whose travel expenses to the conference were covered by the Rhodes Student Travel Fund. “As an undergraduate I never thought I would have that opportunity. I felt very professional and knowledgeable about the material we were presenting. Anna and I had to be, because Dr. Gerecke let us do all of the presenting, unless members of the audience were asking very technical questions beyond our realm of study.”
While it requires a great deal of time and effort to do this kind of professional research, it’s actually quite easy to get involved. Allen recalls simply walking into Dr. Gerecke’s office and explaining her desire to do neuroscience research. And it worked.
Kolobova has also worked with professors at the University of Memphis. But both students say the benefits of all their research outweigh any cost of time or energy. Being able to see a problem evolve from inception to completion is essential.
“Just being in the lab and seeing how things work from start to finish,” is what Kolobova loves, “coming up with a question, looking into the background literature about it and then actually performing it.”
Allen agrees. “It sounds really nerdy, but it makes science exciting.”
Working with Dr. Gerecke has also helped them develop their problem solving skills, critical thinking and leadership. Plus, “We have a great time,” says Allen. “Dr. Gerecke makes it really relaxed. I wouldn’t want to do research with anybody else because she is so understanding.”