From Students To Scholars
Thanks to faculty collaboration, undergraduate researchers shine at national conference.
By Cathy Madison; photos by Luann Dibb
As midnight nears on a sleety Wednesday night in April, students Kelli Kenyon SP'15 and Jessica McManus SP'13 are oblivious to the ice storm bearing down on La Crosse, Wisconsin, as they rehearse in the Days Inn. Under the watchful eye of collaborator and mentor Arturo Sesma Jr., assistant professor of psychology, they practice their presentations — just one more time — for the two-day National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR), scheduled to begin tomorrow morning.
Kenyon and McManus are among 14 nervous, excited Katies who arrived that night in two white rental vans, ready to make oral and poster presentations at the University of Wisconsin–Crosse, where some 3,000 participants from a variety of disciplines were expected at NCUR. Over the past three years — including at Ithaca, New York, and Ogden, Utah — St. Catherine students have performed admirably at the conference; their acceptance rate for papers is 97 percent — notably better than the national average of 83 percent.
Kenyon and McManus are not about to let their school down, and Sesma is not about to let them. This last late-night run-through is to get their timing down. NCUR orals are restricted to a taut 15 minutes, with an additional five minutes allotted for audience questions. The two have devoted nearly a year to their research projects, and Sesma has no doubt that they'll do fine, displaying intimate knowledge of their subjects and fielding questions like the pros they're becoming. But it is, after all, their first time presenting at a national conference.
"I thought I'd be doing research after college, but when this opportunity was handed to me, I decided to take it and run," says Kenyon, a sophomore neuroscience major from Hastings, Minnesota. Her probing curiosity as a first-year student in one of Sesma's classes prompted him to ask if she were interested in becoming a Summer Scholar, part of St. Catherine's Collaborative Undergraduate Research (CUR) program that debuted in 2010.
Indeed she was. "It sounded way too awesome to pass up," Kenyon says.
Kenyon spent last summer working with a pediatric neuropsychology clinic at the University of Minnesota, reviewing medical charts of children diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in an attempt to replicate prior research and shed further light on whether treatment with stimulants helps manage children's behavior and attention problems. The Collaborative Undergraduate Research program funds students for 200 summer hours, plus, in some cases, 10 hours per week during the following fall semester. Professors receive a course release.
As Kenyon now knows, research — especially collaborative research — doesn't necessarily stay on schedule. "Ours was finished about two weeks ago," she concedes.
If she had been simply a research assistant (RA), Kenyon adds, she would have entered data into the database and left results and analysis to her professor. Instead, Sesma helped her delve into the numbers and synthesize her own conclusions. "He took so much time to explain every little detail and coach me through it. It was so informative," she says. "It felt like another class."
Sesma plays an active role in his mentees' presentations, often serving as a one-man cheering squad.
That close collaboration is what distinguishes St. Kate's Summer Scholars program, explains director Lynda Szymanski, professor of psychology and associate dean of the School of Humanities, Arts and Sciences. "The students are not RAs," she says. "They're actively involved as collaborators. We call them junior colleagues. There is always grunt work to be done in research, but the faculty member does as much as the student. This is not about paying students to do the professors' work. Yes, it takes longer, but these professors are committed to student learning."
The 15 teams that participated in Summer Scholars in 2012 were selected through a competitive application process. Faculty mentors must be able to define how the students will be "meaningful collaborators," Szymanski says. Those who miss the mark meet individually with Szymanski, who coaches them for their next application.
For those chosen, opportunities abound. Since 2010, St. Kate's student-faculty teams have presented at five regional conferences and a dozen national and international discipline-specific conferences — such as the American Psychological Association, the Hmong National Development Conference, the American Chemical Society and the Costume Society of America — in addition to NCUR. So far, three teams have had their research published in peer-reviewed journals.
The program is also designed to foster faculty development for tenure and promotion. But Sesma says that's not why he has collaborated with four students in the past two years. His role as guide and facilitator is its own reward — especially when he learns as much as his students.
"This is an opportunity to teach," he explains. "I derive meaning in my work by working with students. Certainly rapport and relationships develop in the course of classroom teaching, but they are diffused among 15 or 20 students. This is an entirely different qualitative level. I'm not only imparting knowledge to them, but also working with them on things in which they are deeply interested. I'm facilitating the love of learning."
McManus, a senior in psychology from South St. Paul, was deeply interested in the proposed criteria for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the classification guide for U.S. mental health professionals overhauled this spring for the first time in 18 years. She was also interested in eating disorders. Together, she and Sesma proposed research that applied the new, relaxed DSM-5 criteria to archived data, to see what effect they might have on future diagnoses. For McManus, that meant having to learn algorithms.
"It sounded great when we got the idea together," she says. "But then there I was, knee-deep in writing algorithms and syntax. It looked like Chinese. I had no idea. But it was such a great feeling to know I did it."
Sesma was McManus' go-to guy whenever she was stressed out or scared silly to press "run," she says, explaining that he is patient, intelligent, thorough and goofy (like when things get too serious or his students need to smile for the photographer). As for algorithms and statistical analyses, McManus says that Sesma is "a genius at it, like a kid in a candy store because he loves it so much and is so excited to teach you how it works. He makes it so much fun."
Finally it is Thursday, the storm tapering. Kenyon is first up in Centennial Hall, dressed smartly and standing at the front of a tiered classroom filled with about two dozen conference attendees and supportive Katies. Her presentation goes well; she reports no general consensus on whether ADHD medication affects behavior over time, an intriguing finding that may lead to more study. She confidently and adeptly fields several questions. Sesma sits toward the back, beaming.
"This is not about paying students to do the professor's grunt work. These professors are committed to student learning." — Lynda Szymanski, associate dean.
McManus has to wait until the last slot of the day, but she, too, fills the room with interested listeners. She speaks with authority on her topic, pointing out that relaxed DSM-5 criteria — no longer requiring that women must have lost their periods to be diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, for example — may lead to more diagnoses of recognized eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, but fewer of other types. She, too, fields numerous questions from faculty and students representing colleges and universities across the United States. When she finishes, she walks toward the back and reaches across the table to give Sesma a high-five.
"It was fantastic to see them just get up there and do their thing," Sesma exclaims. "They were so confident and poised, so professional."
NCUR 2013 is over, but these Katies have just begun. "I've met such bright, intelligent, independent young women," Kenyon says. "I'm so impressed by what we've accomplished since we all met last May." Her experience not only enhanced her appetite for research but also elicited a fondness for the biological and chemical components of neuroscience.
"I learned that I'm capable of more than I think I am. I'm so proud of myself," says McManus, who starts a master's program in counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota in the fall. "It's really awesome to accomplish something a lot of undergrads never do."
"It's such a powerful transition," adds Szymanski, whose passion for mentoring is obvious. "They go from thinking they're students to thinking they're scholars."