Beyond the Classroom

As a high school senior, Casey Wojtera '14 knew she wanted to pursue a major in the sciences, with the possibility of preparing for medical or veterinary school in the future. As she tried to decide where to go to college, Wojtera, of Radford, looked at several options, including two large public universities.

But it was the opportunity to participate in high-level scientific research through the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program (URAP) at Roanoke College that cinched her decision.

"URAP opens more doors in the end," says Wojtera, who is considering a major in biochemistry. "That's part of the reason I chose Roanoke, because they had one-on-one research opportunities that I couldn't get at the larger schools I looked at. I really value that at Roanoke, and it definitely swayed my decision."

URAP, a highly competitive program that rivals similar ones offered at nationally ranked colleges and universities, is one of many opportunities available for Roanoke students to engage in independent research projects and apply classroom lessons to real-world problems. The projects, available for all academic disciplines, allow students to make personal connections with the College through close collaboration with both faculty advisors and fellow students with similar interests. Students who are awarded a URAP position, available either as one-year awards or as projects renewable all four years, begin working on their projects upon enrollment and receive a $2,000 stipend each year.

Another competitive choice is the Summer Scholars program, which supports 14 students each summer with $2,500 stipends, free rooms on campus and course credits in exchange for devoting at least eight weeks to their research. The Summer Scholars also must write a paper (or present a collection of creative works, in the case of fine arts) and present their final results in a special session held during Family Weekend each fall.

Olivia League '13 has been selected as the first Judge James C. Turk Summer Scholar, named for senior U.S. District Judge James C. Turk '49. The program allows qualified students to spend the summer conducting intensive, independent research on a topic involving law and politics.

League, who interned with the National Criminal Justice Association in D.C. as a Washington Semester Program student during the spring semester, will spend this summer researching and writing a paper on the impact of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

"If we really want to give our students experiences with real problems, if we really want to expand their thinking, then we need to give them these kinds of experiences that are outside the classroom," says Dr. Julie Lyon, director of student/faculty research. "We want them to be active learners, we want them to grow and develop. And if we want them to get into graduate schools, this is an absolute requirement to make them competitive."

Training Future Scientists

For students majoring in the sciences, the chance to engage in independent research alongside a faculty member is a critical component of scholarly and professional development.

"We as faculty members are training the next generation of scientists," says Dr. Christopher Lassiter, a biology professor who often has as many as six students working in his lab each academic year. "It's very much like an apprenticeship-science is much more than what happens in the classroom. It's what happens in the laboratory, and it's learning the techniques and the skills. The students are learning not just the skills, but the process of science."

Scientific discovery is rarely accomplished alone. Teamwork and collaboration are essential elements. Wojtera's project is one piece of a larger project under the direction of chemistry professor Dr. Tim Johann. The project comprises a variety of experiments designed to increase scientific understanding of MTHFS, an enzyme used in two forms of chemotherapy. Wojtera is conducting a series of gene mutations, using the form of the enzyme found in the infectious agent for walking pneumonia, to determine which amino acids are vital to the enzyme's function. The project has wide implications: ultimately it should give scientists a better understanding of metabolism, and results could potentially inform the design of better chemotherapy treatments.

"I'll benefit from working with a full research team," says Wojtera. "It's not just my project. We're all contributing toward the same goal. It's teaching me to work on a team and not just to be focused on myself or just one outcome."

Wojtera is conducting her research as a Bondurant Summer Scholar. A number of donors, including many past Bondurant recipients, have given to this endowed fund to support student research in chemistry. The W. Oscar & Daisy W. Hylton endowment and the William Carroll Fund are two other funds that support student research in the sciences. In addition, faculty members often apply for external grants to help fund student research opportunities.

Kayla Muncy '13, from Bluefield, Va., also is contributing to Johann's research project. Using the E. coli version of the MTHFS protein, Muncy is attempting to determine its characteristics and function. She and Casey often work in the lab at the same time, allowing them to learn from each other and help each other troubleshoot problems with experiments.

"Most of the time we're doing separate things, but sometimes we are both working on [a new technique] that we need to learn together, so it's nice for us to be able to talk about what we're working on," says Muncy, a biology major and chemistry minor with aspirations of attending medical school.

Kenny Lampert '12, a biology major from Salem, is working in Lassiter's laboratory, where research is focused on the sex hormones in zebrafish and how they affect embryonic development. Lampert is attempting to genetically engineer a fish that will glow fluorescent green in the location of the androgen receptor (AR), which is responsible for detecting testosterone. The AR binds testosterone and allows proper development of an organism. If successful, Lampert will have produced the first genetically engineered vertebrate at the College.

Lampert's research is unique. Several other people are working with GFP fish (fish that glow green in various organs/tissues) to examine embryonic development and the effects of different toxicants. But Lampert said he is believed to be the only person in the world working on an androgen receptor:Green Fluorescent Protein fish.

"We will be able to use these fish to identify endocrine-disrupting compounds-anything that interrupts the endrocrine system, such as vinclozolin [a fungicide used on crops and golf courses]," Lampert explains. "We can use these fish to look at the potential threats and see what effects it has on the aquatic organism, and we can apply the knowledge to humans."

Pursuing In-Depth Knowledge

Brittany Harrison '11, a senior from Gloucester, Va., completed a Summer Scholars project two years ago on bluegrass mountain music in Southwest Virginia, allowing her to explore her interest in the field of ethnomusicology-an academic discipline not offered at Roanoke that combines principles of anthropology and musicology. Her project examined the culture of the music and its influence on contemporary bluegrass and country music. For eight weeks that summer, the music and Spanish major traveled along "The Crooked Road: Virginia's Music Heritage Trail," attending weekly jam sessions, where she sang and played the mountain dulcimer along with the regular performers.

In 2010, Harrison received one of two $2,500 Edwin W. Gaston Jr. Scholarship awards from the Alpha Chi National College Honor Society. The other winner was a student from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts.

Harrison, who also graduated with concentrations in anthropology and Latin American and Caribbean studies, has continued to pursue independent research, most recently working on a music theory project analyzing 20th century composer George Crumb's work, "Voices of Ancient Children," a piece that incorporates excerpts from the writings of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca. She also recently completed a project about Hora Zero, a vanguard literary movement in Peru with close ties to Peruvian politics and history of the 1970s.

"The depth and quantity of learning with an independent study is far more than I've had in the classroom," says Harrison, who plans to find a job and continue working on the Crumb project after graduation. "It's just you, and it's something you want to do. You can go much more in depth [than in the classroom setting]. And you learn things that are fun-learning about George Crumb's life is fun, learning about the people of Peru is fun, playing music with people is fun."

Student research opportunities at Roanoke often lead to opportunities to publish papers with faculty members or give presentations at high-profile conferences. Julia Boudrye '13, a psychology major from Derwood, Md., has conducted extensive research on how cellphone usage affects college students' face-to-face interactions with peers and family members. Boudrye, working under the guidance of psychology professor Dr. Denise Adkins, has presented her research at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of Undergraduate Studies (MARCUS) at Sweet Briar College and at the Madison Research by Undergraduates in the Social Sciences and Humanities Conference at James Madison University.

In May, she presented her latest findings at the National Conference of the American Psychological Society in Washington, D.C., alongside professionals in the field. The APA is the largest scientific and professional organization of psychologists in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists.

"Julia's a superstar," Adkins says. "She's progressed so quickly that she went straight from an undergraduate conference to a conference where her research was accepted for presentation after being evaluated alongside professionals with Ph.D.'s in the field. She had the opportunity to present to some of the premier minds in psychology."

Real-World Work Experience

Internships also provide students with experiential learning opportunities that build on textbook lessons from the classroom. Abby Brdlik '11 and Dave Baker '11, both history majors, spent the spring semester working closely with two archaeologists in the Western Preservation Office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, which is housed on Roanoke's Elizabeth Campus. Brdlik sorted bones excavated from Maycock's Point, a prehistoric site located along the James River in Prince George County. Her main task was to determine which were used as tools by looking for clues such as whether they are polished or burned, or have certain markings. She even had the chance to travel with her supervisor, State Archaeologist Michael Barber, to the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville to view the artifacts under an electron microscope.

"I've learned the importance of preservation, and that sometimes people forget that a lot of really interesting history is in their backyard," says Brdlik, of Summit, N.J. "For me, I learn better when I do hands-on activities-I get to touch these things and hold them and examine them, and that's extremely important."

Baker's project involved a variety of tasks, from sorting ceramic shards found in an ancient Native American site to assisting with an archaeological survey of a Monacan Indian cemetery.

"It's shown me a different aspect of history that I wasn't able to study in the classroom," says Baker, of Clemmons, N.C. "It's allowed me to get my hands dirty and grow on the experience I've had in the field so far."

While the scholarly and professional skills students gain from these independent research projects will be an advantage in graduate school or on the job, perhaps the most important benefit students gain from the experiences are the personal connections they make with their faculty mentors. The one-on-one guidance builds confidence and nurtures strong ties with the College.

"Having Dr. Adkins' guidance and mentorship has been awesome," Boudrye says. "It's helped direct me towards maybe going to graduate school and getting my Ph.D. The research experience not only gives students a great relationship with a professor on campus, but it also gives us a chance to relate with the academic department as a whole and to figure out what we like about that discipline. Finding something you're interested in is always exciting."

 

- KAREN DOSS BOWMAN