Students present undergraduate research at Sweet Briar’s MARCUS conference

MARCUS 2017 students presenting
Sweet Briar students DaZané Cole (center) and Anna Davis (right) talk to a student from Christopher Newport University at MARCUS on Saturday.

More than 100 attendees gathered in the Conference Center at Sweet Briar College on Saturday, Oct. 14, to see — and hear — what students from several Virginia colleges and universities had to say about their research. Two-thirds of them were presenters themselves, hailing from across the liberal arts and sciences.

Since 1999, Sweet Briar has invited students from around the state to share and present their independent research and creative projects at MARCUS, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of Undergraduate Scholarship. Administered by the College’s Honors Program, MARCUS is devoted exclusively to the scholarship of undergraduate students.

In between talks and poster sessions, presenters have the opportunity to mingle with fellow scholars in their own disciplines or venture farther outside their comfort zones. Topics varied widely this year, too — from “The Effects of NAFTA on Mexico’s Corn Producers” to “The Roles and Rolls of Medieval English Coroners,” from “LGBT+ Representation and the AIDS Crisis in American Theatre” to “Optimizing a multi-step synthesis” or “Exploring Recent Stereotype Threat Interventions.” And that was just among Sweet Briar students alone.

“MARCUS left me in awe of the dedication and knowledge I witnessed,” said Sweet Briar sophomore Clara Rogers, an engineering major and participant in the College’s 2017 Honors Summer Research Program. “The conference was a great platform for all of the students to share their passions. I was able to talk with some of the students from other schools and had some really amazing discussions — and I learned about topics completely outside of my own area of expertise!”

Engineering students work on honors project
Rylee Runyon (left) and Clara Rogers work on their Honors Summer Research project.

In collaboration with classmate Rylee Runyon, Rogers spent eight weeks this summer designing and building a low-cost automated system — in short, a robot — to fabricate polymer thin films. “Ionic self-assembly is a thin film fabrication technique where a substrate is submerged into charged solutions,” Runyon’s abstract reads. The robot, she explains, was needed to “streamline the fabrication of these thin films.”

Once built and running, Rogers and Runyon were able to assess the quality of the robot-generated slides and compare them to hand-dipped slides. The team’s presentation at MARCUS focused especially on the design process.

“It was so exciting to be able to share the findings of my research during the summer, not only with my parents but also with other students working in similar fields,” Rogers said. “I found pride and confidence in myself, not only as a student but also a researcher.”

Presenting her project to a wider audience at MARCUS was “incredibly gratifying,” she added. “It feels like one day my research will make its way out of the lab and have an impact on the world.”

Rogers and Runyon were advised by Hank Yochum, who directs the Margaret Jones Wyllie ’45 Engineering Program at Sweet Briar, and Kaelyn Leake, an assistant professor of engineering. Victoria Paige Jemmett ’19 also presented at MARCUS, as did Honors Summer Research Program participants Jessie Meager ’18, Chanel Friedrich ’19, April Boyd ’18, Anna Davis ’20, Erica Orr ’18 and DaZané Cole ’20.

Clara Rogers at MARCUS
Clara Rogers with a student from another Virginia college at MARCUS

According to Honors Summer Research Program director Jessica Salvatore, nearly 20 presenters came from James Madison University, about a dozen from Christopher Newport University, another eight to 10 from Randolph College and a handful from Hampden-Sydney College, Washington and Lee University and Roanoke College. Lynchburg College sent one presenter.

Salvatore is pleased with the numbers, noting a slight uptick since last year, when Sweet Briar held its first conference after a one-year hiatus.

“I am so proud of our students,” said Salvatore, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Sweet Briar. “They not only presented their own work, but also moderated panels and volunteered their time in many other capacities to pull off the conference. But we could not have done it without the participation of our friends at other regional institutions, some of whom have been coming to MARCUS for nearly 20 years.”

Salvatore looks forward to next year, when Sweet Briar will hold its 20th annual conference. The 2018 date for MARCUS is Oct. 6 and — maybe — Oct. 7.

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