Undergrad research shines at MARCUS

Dixie Martin '15 (right) with Sweet Briar assistant professors Jessica Salvatore (psychology) and Michael Davis (biology).
Dixie Martin ’15 (right) with Sweet Briar assistant professors Jessica Salvatore (psychology) and Michael Davis (biology).

Sweet Briar College’s Honors Program held its 16th annual Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference of Undergraduate Scholarship, known as MARCUS, on Saturday, Oct. 11. More than 100 students representing 18 public and private colleges and universities gave short oral presentations or displayed posters describing their undergraduate research on a range of topics.

Sweet Briar’s Savanna Klein ’16 gave a presentation on her Honors Summer Research. Working with biology professor Linda Fink and English professor John Gregory Brown, Klein combined field research in ecology with creative writing. Over the summer, she collected data on trees and other species growing in the Constitution Oaks Nature Sanctuary on campus and wrote a collection of creative works based on the experience.

“I chose [the sanctuary] because it was a location that I loved, a topic that I cared about, and it allowed me the flexibility to observe and write,” Klein says. “Serene, lush and longstanding, it is the perfect place for inspiration and research.”

Savanna Klein '16 in the Constitution Oaks Nature Sanctuary while conducting research last summer.
Savanna Klein ’16 in the Constitution Oaks Nature Sanctuary while conducting research last summer.

Her scientific observations add to a database started decades ago by Fink’s predecessor as Duberg Professor of Ecology, Buck Edwards. Every 10-15 years, data are collected in the grove of massive white oaks. It’s just not every decade that someone writes poems and essays about it.

The project seems tailor-made for MARCUS — the format is purposely interdisciplinary, with emphasis on the intersection of disciplines across the liberal arts. The atmosphere is one of lively inquiry in which the student researchers are the experts, presenting to an audience of their peers.

“[MARCUS] is a really great experience right here on campus,” says Klein, a double major in environmental science and English and creative writing. “Giving presentations and being comfortable doing so is something that will be very important if I pursue a career in the environmental field.”

MARCUS brings together undergraduates from schools across the state and topics run the gamut — from the secrets of Bletchley Park in World War II to Adam Smith’s economics.

Emily Diamond ’15, a Sweet Briar biology major with a minor in chemistry, hopes her project data can eventually be integrated into her advisor Michael Davis’ research and published. She is investigating bacteria known for causing infections in patients with cystic fibrosis — and getting acquainted with the life of a researcher.

“Molecular biology can be frustrating,” she says. “It takes a lot of hours in the lab to get used to all of the protocols, but it is rewarding to see it pay off.”

Tricia Morgan, Hayley Foraker, Wendy Ferguson and Verena Joerger collaborated on an environmental science project.
Tricia Morgan, Hayley Foraker, Wendy Ferguson and Verena Joerger collaborated on an environmental science project.

Four students in Tom O’Halloran’s Advanced Lab in Environmental Science prepared a poster on their in-class research to measure the progress of the College’s biofuel project. Last spring, about 250 acres of hay fields on campus were converted to warm-season grasses through an agreement with a vendor to manage and sell the harvest as biofuel. The initiative was viewed as both environmental stewardship and a well of research possibilities for students.

Seniors Hayley Foraker, Verena Joerger, Wendy Ferguson and Patricia Morgan have spent hours tramping the fields collecting data to assess how well the switchgrass is establishing in each field and looking at environmental factors that might explain why one is doing better than another.

The fieldwork is tiring, Joerger says, but the class exposes students to “real research experience from data collection, to analysis, and then finally turning the research into a scientific paper.”

Foraker adds that preparing for MARCUS as a group has provided another layer of experience. “It’s been the perfect opportunity to fine tune both our field research and presentation skills,” she says.

Creative endeavors can be presented at MARCUS as long as there is a research component. Sometimes the project can lead students in unexpected directions. Khirsten Cook ’15 presented a poster on her Honors Summer Research on ekphrastic writing, which she conducted under advisors Tracy Hamilton, associate professor of art history, and Brown, the Nichols Professor of English.

Khirsten Cook '15 (left) talks about her ekphrasis writing project and novel with conference attendees.
Khirsten Cook ’15 (left) talks about her ekphrasis writing project and novel with conference attendees.

Ekphrasis — a descriptive response to an artistic work — was a natural pick for Cook because it combines her majors in English and creative writing and art history. She chose works from Sweet Briar’s art collection, including Carrie Mae Weems’ toned print “Some Said You Were the Spitting Image of Evil,” to analyze and write about in stories and poems.

She ended up working on a novel inspired by Weems’ print, writing from the perspective of a white teenage girl. Set in the 1850s, it deals with slavery, race and religion.

The print is part of a series by Weems called “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” created from 19th-century daguerreotypes. It depicts a young slave woman.

“This prompted me to begin thinking about the South and its history with the slave trade in relation to this young woman and her place in that world,” Cook says. “I found myself, much like Weems, wanting to give her a voice.”

Hamilton believes Cook is succeeding in doing so.

“I’ve read [her work] a few times,” she says. “Not only is Khirsten’s historically conscious prose style breathtaking from the very first sentence, but her research has allowed her to contextualize her characters with a sense of place and time that is utterly authentic. I have great hopes for this project.”

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