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St. Kate's students give expert presentations at national research conference

Leslie Muzulu '13 and Kristal Jameson '14 give a presentation on their team research project at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Leslie Muzulu '13 and Kristal Jameson '14 give a presentation on their team research project at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Photo by Melissa Kaelin.

In an experience that formed new bonds and memories, 14 students from St. Catherine University presented at the 2013 National Conference on Undergraduate Research in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

The undergraduate students presented on subjects ranging from math to chemistry, and on topics ranging from ethical consumption to climate change. They also heard from renowned plenary speakers and had the opportunity to attend the Graduate and Professional School Fair.

An Experience in Liberal Arts

For many St. Kate’s students, the appeal of the conference was the broad range of liberal arts subjects represented in the research. Students supported each other by attending one another’s presentations, and they took time to hear undergraduate research by students from other colleges and universities.

“It was phenomenal,” said Leslie Muzulu ’13. “I got to learn a lot from some disciplines I would never have thought to take before. For example, my dad is an economist but I have never had the chance to take an economics class before. So sitting in on the economics presentations was really interesting.”

At the conference, Muzulu presented research she conducted with Kristal Jameson ’14 on “Modeling the Game of Brain Cube.” The research project used mathematical formulas to demonstrate possible solutions for the computer game called Brain Cube.

Muzulu and Jameson confidently explained the formulas and their conclusions in front of a full classroom of students and faculty from other schools. They even had some fun at the end, playing the quirky sound effects from Brain Cube at the request of their audience.

“It was really exciting for our presentation because there were way more people than I thought there were going be,” said Jameson. “It was an excellent experience.”

Answering Tough Questions

Oral presentations for the conference were limited to a short 15 minutes, with time for questions following each session. Several of St. Kate’s students were dealt challenging questions from the audience, though they handled the answers in an expert fashion.

Jennifer Rowe ’14 wowed the crowd with her presentation on synthesis in organic chemistry. The answers she gave in response to audience questions left the moderator, a chemistry professor himself, smiling and shaking his head.

“It was very exciting, because I have presented at other conferences, and I’ve actually never gotten those questions before,” said Rowe. “I could tell that I had more biochemists in my audience than organic chemists.”

Rebecca Doucette ’13 also gave a presentation that yielded a number of questions. Her research, “A Theological Response to the Poultry Industry,” piqued the interest of her audience, nearly leading to a debate on whether individuals can truly know when they are consuming chicken sustainably and responsibly.

Doucette answered each of the questions well, taking the comments from the audience in stride. Afterward she said the experience, contrasted with a typical assignment to present to her friends and peers, made her feel “respected and extremely professional.”

“Here, there are people that I don’t know,” said Doucette. “There are people from multiple disciplines that I’m talking to, so I have to make sure that my material is on spot.”

Doucette said the most inspiring part of the conference was seeing young people disseminate their own research on such a huge variety of topics.

“People my age are impressive, and they are exciting, and they are going far and beyond! It’s inspiring and it’s motivating for me in my own work,” she said.

Alexa Chihos ’13, too, said she was moved by her experience at the national conference.

“I think one of the biggest things I can take away from this experience is the camaraderie — and almost solidarity — that comes out of this conference,” she said. “It’s very exciting. It affirmed my belief in myself that I want to be a professor one day.”

Summer Scholars: A Success Story

All but two of the students who attended the National Conference on Undergraduate Research also participated in the Summer Scholars program at St. Kate’s. The Summer Scholars program is an intensive 10-week experience where faculty and students collaborate on research projects, while being immersed in a culture of scholarship.

The program, which began in 2010 as part of the St. Catherine University Collaborative Undergraduate Research program, puts students in the role of a researcher instead of a research assistant.

Hanan Zavala ’12 spoke to this dynamic in a video on her undergraduate research project. She and her partner Gabrielle McGurran-Hanson ’13 handled all components of their project on metabolism, under the guidance of faculty mentor Dr. Mark Blegen.

“Now I know what the research process is and what it takes to be a researcher,” Zavala said.

As part of the Summer Scholars program, each student is paired with a faculty mentor to help her develop her research. Each student is also required to present the research at a national conference.

Lynda Szymanski, associate dean of the School of Humanities Arts and Sciences and founder of Summer Scholars at St. Kate’s, said in this way, the program not only promotes student development in the area of research, but it also promotes faculty development in student mentoring.

As evidence of the collaborative nature of the program and the relationships built between students and their faculty mentors, several faculty mentors accompanied their students to the National Conference on Undergraduate Research.

In addition to chaperoning the trip, Dr. Cynthia Norton offered support to her student Morgan Wright in her poster session. Dr. Jill Welter attended the conference to listen to Delorianne Sander present climate change research, and Dr. Arturo Sesma offered support for two of his students, Kelli Kenyon and Jessica McManus, in their projects on developmental psychology. 

For a full list of the research projects presented at the 2013 National Conference on Undergraduate Research, read the March article.

Read more about the Summer Scholars program in SCAN, February 2012.

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April 19, 2013 by Melissa Kaelin

See also: Liberal Arts