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Dolphin Stories

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Faculty-Mentored Undergraduate Research Thrives at Le Moyne

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At left, Dr. David Smith and Dr. Larry Tanner lead a research trip with students to Iceland.

Associate Professor David Craig, Ph.D. of the Le Moyne College physics department and senior Christopher Carson are in the midst of preparing to conduct a research project to enhance understanding of decoherence, which Craig describes as “the physical process and mechanism by which what is fundamentally an uncertain, quantum world appears to be a deterministic, classical world.”

Download PDF file listing current faculty-student research projects at Le Moyne
Fully grasping the transition from "quantum" to "classical" is crucial to learning how to build systems and devices such as quantum computers that fully utilize quantum properties to accomplish tasks more efficiently than a classical device alone could, Craig explains. The project is also an ideal opportunity for Carson, a physics major, to dig into this complex subject and contribute to it by applying what he has learned in the classroom to the lab.

“You can talk about something all you want,” Craig says. “Students will never know what it’s truly like to be a scientist until they do it.”

Faculty members across disciplines cite numerous benefits of faculty-mentored undergraduate student research, including the ability to probe into a complex problem, to think and work independently, and to assess the results of their work.

Le Moyne’s long-standing commitment to such research spans a variety of academic departments – from physics, chemistry and biological sciences to English, psychology and foreign languages – and is underscored by several recent developments.

Those developments include initiatives by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Linda LeMura, Ph.D. to support summer research projects on campus; the competitive process that students go through to seek funding for various projects through the Student Research Committee; and the creation of the position of coordinator of student scholarships and fellowships, notes Kate Costello-Sullivan, Ph.D., associate professor of English.

For the past three years, Costello-Sullivan has served as a mentor for students completing theses for Departmental Honors or in the College’s Integral Honors program. She is currently working with senior Nick Herubin, a political science major and Irish studies minor whose work examines British and American use of stereotypes of “Irishness” in the 19th century.

“I think any time that you can invite students to complicate their understanding of a discipline, a concept, or a text, you give them practical skills and means by which to approach and interpret their world,” she says. “Critical reading and thinking are always practical.”

Like her colleagues, Costello-Sullivan sees multiple benefits to student scholarship.

“I think the benefit is two-fold: first … is the ability to engage in a sustained intellectual enterprise that demands complexity and rigor,” she says. “Such effort teaches students not to fear complexity but to embrace it. Second and equally important is the potential to allow students to see themselves as scholars-in-the-making.”

In Herubin’s case, his research was a continuation of what he learned about Irish history and society after he spent a semester studying abroad in Dublin.

“It is a chance to really focus in on a particular subject,” he says of his research. “I also think we (as students) benefit from the chance to research almost anything that interests us. The variety of different topics my class is researching is really incredible.”

Costello-Sullivan notes that many of the projects the students undertake support the Jesuit mission of the College; they have practical, hands-on consequences or address social or political issues or problems, a reflection of the College’s commitment to use education to benefit society as a whole.

One such project is currently underway within the College’s Department of Biological Sciences, where Ben Thivierge, a senior natural systems science major, is analyzing soil samples he and several classmates took during a trip to Iceland in 2007. The samples were taken from areas where glaciers have retreated. Since the glacial retreat is a consequence of global warming, the work examines the effects on the environment of this warming, explains Larry Tanner, Ph.D., professor of natural systems science, who is mentoring Thivierge. In particular, they hope to understand whether the processes of succession and soil formation can offset the anthropogenic additions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

“Being in the sciences, the best way for us to learn is actually getting our hands dirty and manipulating the conditions to suit the experiment,” Thivierge says. “Working in the lab or in the field with a faculty mentor allows that person to share his or her experiences in the same situation. … Conducting research as an undergraduate also shows that you wanted to take that extra step and really learn about your field.”

Unlike experiments performed in lab courses, there is no predetermined outcome, Tanner says.

“The research process is fundamentally about asking questions, and trying to devise methods of finding the answers,” Tanner says. “As scientists, we try to show students how to approach the basic intellectual process of inquiry, and this is no different than our mission of creating life-long learners.”

Le Moyne students have co-authored publications in prestigious scientific journals on novel discoveries to which their work contributed, and co-authored presentations given at national and international meetings, notes Beth Mitchell, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences.

With her students, Mitchell conducts research on the function of the cellular structures known as cilia or flagella. These organelles are important in cell movement and sensory functions; in mammals, for example, cilia play essential roles in such diverse systems as reproduction, respiration, kidney function and vision.

These organelles are important in cell movement and in sensory functions of virtually all plants and animals, including reproduction, respiration and vision.

“The chance for students in the sciences to do faculty-mentored research reflects an important growth opportunity for them,” she says. “It represents the best way to actually teach students how science is done and is really the quintessential hands-on learning experience.”

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