New Lynn and Mary Steen Fellowship Fund supports independent undergraduate research

Lynn and Mary Steen

Lynn and Mary Steen pictured during their retirement celebration in 2009.

In the 44 years he taught mathematics at St. Olaf College, Lynn Steen was deeply committed to developing research experiences for undergraduates.

That commitment — which he also applied to his work with several national organizations — led Lynn and his wife, Associate Professor Emerita of English Mary Steen, to establish a new fund supporting undergraduate research at St. Olaf shortly before his death this summer.

The Lynn and Mary Steen Fellowship Fund will support three to five student-initiated research projects each year. Open to rising juniors and seniors, the fellowship will provide up to $5,000 per award for eight- to 10-week projects starting in summer 2016.

Initially the Steens considered making a series of smaller gifts to first pilot the fellowship program with the college, but by using stock they fully funded the program over two years. The Strategic Initiative Match (SIM) program created by the St. Olaf Board of Regents also encouraged them to establish the fund now and will double its spendable income in perpetuity. The SIM program supports activities critical to St. Olaf’s strategic plan including high-impact learning practices such as undergraduate research.

“I was glad Lynn and I could establish this fellowship before he died,” says Mary. “We were anxious to encourage investigation and creativity, as well as more traditional scholarship, to allow students to pursue interests beyond the classroom and to experience publicly presenting their work. We both believed very strongly in the benefits of a liberal arts education at a residential institution. In my field I have always appreciated the fact that at St. Olaf questions of faith and values arise naturally and can be discussed openly. And of course, we spent over half our lives and all of our careers at St. Olaf, so we were pretty invested here.”

Many of St. Olaf’s undergraduate research initiatives build on Lynn’s extensive efforts to engage students in research. Lynn and fellow St. Olaf mathematics professor Arthur Seebach received the first grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to support undergraduate research in mathematics at St. Olaf in 1967, and under Lynn’s tenure as president of the Mathematical Association of America, the NSF established the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program to support research across the United States. His commitment to student research would become one of many hallmarks of his career at St. Olaf, a vision which now informs the college’s Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program among other student research initiatives.

What is distinctive about the Lynn and Mary Steen Fellowship Fund is that it supports research conducted independently by students.

“St. Olaf already has a good number of opportunities for students to work on faculty-initiated projects,” affirms Mary, who taught in St. Olaf’s English Department for 44 years and was also a former department chair prior to hers and Lynn’s retirements in 2009. “What Lynn and I hoped to encourage were projects devised and carried out independently by students themselves. In the English Department I worked with students on independent writing projects ranging from short stories to personal essays to political analysis; these came under the independent study and research rubric. Any number of these could have been developed further had the students had summer support.”

The opportunities the Steens hope to support mirror an opportunity their daughter had: after studying in Leningrad for a summer in 1990, she received a grant to write a series of essays about her experience of living in the Soviet Union just prior to its collapse. Possible student projects the Steens imagined supporting at St. Olaf include shadowing a curator at the Fashion Museum in Bath, England as an exhibit is put together; creating a documentary film about efforts to change building codes in a student’s hometown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; or comparing data mapping the spread of Ebola in West Africa to computer models for the spread and containment of epidemics.

“I am so thankful for the opportunities that Lynn and Mary are making possible here at St. Olaf,” affirms Marci Sortor, provost and dean of the college at St. Olaf. “Undergraduate research is one of many high-impact educational practices that the college has long provided students access to and is working to expand. The fund that the Steens created, as well as their many contributions to the college as faculty and friends, helps us immensely.”