Undergraduate Research – Student Testimonials

Hear what other Oles have to say about their undergraduate research experiences!

Name: Emily Quinnell, 2011  
Major(s): Sociology/Anthropology and Family Studies
Subject: Rice County Chemical Health Coalition, Drug and Alcohol Use in Rice County

This past summer of 2010, I worked together with Dr. Devyani Chandran, Professor of Social Work and Family Studies at St. Olaf College to document the efforts that have been implemented to address drug and alcohol use in Rice County over the past five years.  Additionally, we gained in-depth knowledge on the successes and missteps of the Rice County Chemical Health Coalition’s work, the gaps that exist within the programming, and additional recommendations of efforts that the coalition should undertake.  Throughout the summer, I compiled a literature review, conducted 32 in-depth interviews, transcribed interviews and analyzed data with Atlas.ti software, presented results at poster session, put together a report for the Rice County Chemical Health Coalition, and this fall had the opportunity to disseminate our work at the Midwest Conference of Social Work Education.

I heard about this opportunity through the summer research e-mail sent out to the St. Olaf student e-mail alias and I applied through the online application that was provided.  I worked with Professor Chandran from the beginning of the process—right when I heard about the opportunity, I set up a meeting with her to learn about what she specifically wanted in a student researcher.  I provided her with a resume as well as a writing sample from my Quantitative Research Methods class I had taken earlier in the year.  I used the Piper Center online resources to write my resume.

My undergraduate research experience has been extremely beneficial for my future preparation.  I am currently applying to Masters in Social Work programs, conducting research within the Social Work department has given me the opportunity to explore my interests in a unique way, especially because I have a Sociology/Anthropology and Family Studies background.  It also has prepared me with a number of skills I know I will use as I continue on to graduate school and into the working world, such as developing rapport with interviewees, managing time and responsibilities independently, and also gaining a sense of confidence in my ability to conduct intense research.  I would recommend that anyone interested in pursuing a graduate degree especially look for research opportunities within their field of interest.  It is valuable practical experience and it gives you the opportunity to form a strong relationship with a faculty member, which can be helpful when looking for advice on writing a personal statement and requesting letters of recommendation.

Name: Jennifer Easler, 2010
Major(s): Classics, Medieval Studies, English
Subject: Distinction Project in Medieval Studies

In the spring of 2010, I completed an independent research project, entitled “War & Medieval Romance,” in medieval studies.  The research focused primarily on Middle English Arthurian Romance, including both theAlliterative and Stanzaic Morte Darthur, Layamon’s Brut, and a very strange ghost story involving Guinevere’s mother.  In the process of completing this 1.00 credit course, required for the medieval studies major, I wrote a thirty-page research paper on the depiction of Gawain in Malory’s Morte Darthur.  This paper earned me distinction in the major.

My interest in the material rose out of the intersection of academic interest in ancient/medieval literature and of personal experiences with war veterans/military members.  As a result, I had focused on war veterans in both a research paper for Chaucer & Ethics and a short story for Advanced Fiction in the fall of 2009.  These two projects inspired me to focus my already-planned Arthurian research onto depictions of violence in Middle English Arthurian romance.  As Gawain, one of the more violent and complex characters in Malory’s work, has fascinated me for years, I chose to focus on his depiction in my main project.

My resources came primarily from my project advisor, Karen Cherewatuk, and from library research.  Professor Cherewatuk is a Malory expert, and her personal library alone probably could have provided enough material for me to complete the paper.  She also suggested other works and provided me with the book that helped me clarify my thesis in terms of genre-based expectations (for romance, epic, and tragedy) in Malory.  The rest of my resources came from my own hours spent in the library.

On a practical level, the project provided me with a lengthy writing sample for graduate school applications – and with practice in time management and hard work while completing the final paper!  One cannot hide in independent research, so the entire course was an exercise in preparing all readings well and in actually discussing my own opinions – an important skill for this shy student who would far rather write than speak.  Furthermore, the oral exam – the final component of medieval studies distinction – was an especially valuable learning experience, through which I have gained confidence in my ability to defend my ideas aloud, not only in writing.  More importantly, however, this paper was significant in that it helped me explore and clarify my primary interests in literature.  Whereas I once would have said simply that I like old books without a clue why, I can now point to specific research interests and topics I would like to pursue as a graduate student.  Furthermore, personal reflection while finishing the project helped me see just how the shape of my own life has molded my academic interests and pursuits.  These realizations may be only somewhat valuable academically, but I find them incredibly valuable personally.

Name: Rae Tamblyn, 2011
Major(s): Sociology/Anthropology and American Racial and Multicultural Studies
Concentration(s): Women’s Studies
Subject: Domestic Violence, Northfield Police Department

My first internship was in Namibia in the fall semester of 2009. I studied abroad through the Center for Global Education (CGE) and part of the program was an optional internship. I interned for a domestic violence clinic. My second, and current, internship is for the Northfield Police Department, and I cold-emailed them to inquire if I could intern. I used the Piper Center for help in drafting the initial contact email. Both my internships are significant because I am able to better articulate more of what I want, and do not want, from my career, and did develop both my resume and my transferable skill set.

Always assume an organization offers internships. Even if they don’t advertise, they either have a position, are willing to create a position, or know of other similar organizations that do offer internships. Make sure to present yourself in an affirmative light. For example, instead of saying, “I’m not free _____ days”, say, “I am free______ days”. Emphasize that you can help them, instead of how they can help you. The transferable skills worksheet from the Piper Center is extremely helpful, especially if you have little relevant experience for the internship to which you are applying. Make yourself sound good, and prove that you will be an asset. Basically, the position of an intern exists either because they want to actually help you, or because they want to woo you into working for them. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, and let the organization know what else you want.

Name: Clara Swanson, 2011
Major(s): Sociology/Anthropology
Concentration(s): Management Studies 
Subject: Alumni Relations Office and the Main Street Project

I am currently working on an applied undergraduate social science research project with the Alumni Relations office and the Main Street Project.  The Main Street Project seeks to improve the college’s career placement and vocational discernment services as a major priority for development within this institution.  I was contacted by a former Sociology professor who teaches a course on research methods, in which I had done well last year.  With a team of three other current students, I am conducting focus groups, interviews, and survey questionnaires with recent alumni about their experiences using St. Olaf’s career and vocational services during their time as students.  At the conclusion of our data-gathering process, we will present our results to the project Steering Committee with feedback and recommendations for improvement.

I love doing this type of investigation as well as the connections it allows me to make with my fellow team members and our research participants.  My research experiences have helped me develop excellent skills related to working with others to achieve a particular objective, and the process instilled in me the ability to follow a project through a very measured and thorough series of steps.  The unique social and technical skills I have developed and the satisfaction of doing something so useful are well worth the time I have spent involved in the project.

The best way to get involved in research and internship experiences is to make and maintain personal connections with people who do things related to your interests.  I gained this research position through standing out in a classroom setting, and I have gained other positions by contacting people I knew, respectfully, concisely and with great interest, and asking what I could do to learn about and help them in their organization or line of work.  The experiences I have shared with these people have been invaluable to my personal development.

Name: Andrew Wilson, 2011
Major(s): Sociology/Anthropology
Concentration(s): (none)
Subject: Youth Center in Northfield           

I interned with a youth center in Northfield as part of the Phillips Scholarship and the Leaders For Social Change Program during the summer of 2010.  Partnering with the youth center (The Key), I implemented a community outreach project utilizing different aspects of hip-hop culture in an attempt to bring the youth of Northfield together in a positive, community-approved way.

I applied for the Phillips Scholarship my sophomore year (I am now a senior) essentially on a whim, though the support I received from faculty, and especially the Piper Center, drove me to work hard to shape my application. Six students are awarded this scholarship each year for designing and eventually implementing a community service/outreach project in their hometown.  A former Phillips Scholar, as well as the staff at the Piper Center suggested the Leaders For Social Change (LSC) program to me, and I was excited at the prospect of enhancing my experience, so I applied.  Students in LSC intern with leading non-profits in the Northfield/Faribault area, so it was a natural fit to simply intern with the Key, while I was implementing the Phillips project.  The resources at the Piper Center made applying for both of these programs simple.  The applications were sometimes time-consuming, but with the support, and patience the Piper Center provided they were doable.

Internships are extremely important as an undergrad because they allow you to experience first-hand a possible career choice.  They can give you a heads-up about things you may not enjoy doing or they can give you jumpstart to getting in with possible employers.  I recommend that everyone tries to intern somewhere while they’re a student here.  It really helps you figure out what you want to do with your life-plus they’re a blast.

Name: Katherine Crawford, 2011 
Major(s): Latin, Medieval Studies, and English 
Subject: Archaeology Field School in Rome

During the summer of 2010 I had the opportunity to participate in a six week intensive Archeology Field School in Rome through the American Institute of Roman Culture. Our site was at Osita, Porta Marina which was the ancient port town outside of Rome where we worked with archeologists from the University of Bologna. I learned not only the basic archeology methods of excavation, but was also introduced to architectural and archeological drawing and artifact preservation and analysis. The section of Ostia I was working on was in its second season of excavation where we continued the goal of trying to re-evaluate the suburban neighborhood that was located on waterfront property. The excavation still has several seasons left, but eventually our work hopes to further our understanding of Ostia.

I initially found out about the project from an email sent out by Professor Anne Groton of the Classics department. For the application I was required to write an essay describing my interest in the project, a CV, and a letter of recommendation. I also was awarded a grant from the Classics department to help pay for my dig.

I have always been interested in archeology but until now had not had the opportunity to pursue it. Summer is a perfect time to try out something that is new. Participating in an archeology dig in Rome not only gave me important experience within the field of archeology, but it also allowed me to gain practical experience in working in a foreign country. Undergraduate research is the perfect opportunity to test out a field to see if you can see yourself working in it. My experience this summer has allowed me to discover that I want to further my knowledge of archeology by pursuing it in graduate school.

Name: Matthew Friedrichsen, 2011
Major: Mathematics, Greek
Subject: Math Independent Study

During the Spring Semester of the 09-10 school year, I conducted an Independent Study course with Professor Kay Smith of the Math Department as my advisor. I studied the development of ancient Greek mathematics and some of the philosophy surrounding their mathematics by reading books I found in the Science Library related to the topic. However, the main portion of my research was devoted to translating a section of an ancient mathematical work by Heron. Throughout the semester I completed 16 chapters of Book I of Heron’s Metrica. To access the text of the Metrica, Professor Reece allowed me to use the Thesaurus Lingua Graecae. Along with a polished translation, I attempted to produce footnotes to cite theorems which Heron used in his proofs in order to aid the reader in finding where the helping theorems are from, i.e. Euclid’s Elements. This project was significant to me because it enabled me to combine my two greatest areas of academic interest in order to produce something meaningful. It was an excellent experience for me to attempt translating Greek without the aid of a textbook with notes and a professor. On the mathematical side, this project allowed me to study a method of proving theories that differs greatly from modern approaches. I would tell other students that if you find something that interests you that you can’t learn at St. Olaf, try to find a professor who will be willing to help you work on your own and never think that you can’t produce a meaningful result as an undergraduate.

Name: Steffen Docken, 2011
Major: Math and Physics
Subject: Mathematics Research Experience at Louisiana State University

During the summer of 2010, I participated in the Mathematics Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Louisiana State University.  During this program, I worked with Dr. Hoffman, looking at a certain class of modular forms.  Modular forms are a specific type of function, and my task for the summer was to write programs that would generate these functions. Then, I used other programs to try and find special properties in the coefficients of these functions.

I first found this REU and the others I applied for on the NSF REU website.  Once I had researched the REU’s a bit, I talked with my professors about if they were good programs and asked them for recommendations.  After I decided to apply, I brought my resume to the Piper Center for review.  I also looked over the REU’s websites and used that information to write my personal statement, in which I talked about their areas of research and how they interested me.

If you are considering applying for an undergraduate research program, I would suggest applying for a number of them because they can be quite selective.  For example, I applied to about six or seven programs.  Also, when deciding on what programs to apply for, do not only look at what topics they are studying, but also try to learn about the professors.  If possible, find out how good the professors are at working with undergraduates, because who you work with can have a huge impact on whether you have a good or bad experience.

Personally, I have found my undergraduate research experiences very rewarding.  They have been a lot of fun, and have given me a chance to study a specific subject in depth outside of the classroom.  Along with this, they have allowed me to see what doing research is like.

Name: Amy Click, 2011
Major: History
Subject: Theater Department Research Assistant

This past summer, I worked for Jeanne Willcoxon in the theater department. She directed a production of Romeo and Juliet, and worked with actors of varied ages. My job as research assistant was to help in the beginning to make Shakespeare to accessible to every actor, and then to be there to answer research questions throughout the summer. The first two weeks of rehearsal were a dedicated Shakespeare workshop, trying to introduce every actor to Shakespeare. I interviewed Shakespeare educators across the country to try and discover some of the best, and most applicable games, topics for conversations, and exercises to do in that workshop. I attended rehearsal every night, and met with Professor Willcoxon on a weekly basis to discuss my process. She was a wonderful mentor to me, and I learned a lot about professionalism through this process. In the workshop, I gave several lectures and led exercises on a regular basis. Additionally, at the beginning and end of the summer, I gave lectures to fellow researchers and professors. These talks gave me experience communicating my research and speaking before a large group of people for an extended period of time. Both of these skills will be incredibly valuable for me in any professional experience I seek after college.

I found this position through the theater department and applied online. I highly recommend summer research to any St. Olaf student. It is a wonderful opportunity to work very closely with a professor in their chosen field, and gives you professional experience that goes beyond the classroom.

Name: Johanna Gruenewald, 2012
Major: Social Work and American Racial and Multicultural Studies (ARMS)
Subject: Urban Studies Program in Chicago (through Associated Colleges of the Midwest)

I spent the spring of 2010 in Chicago doing an Urban Studies program through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM).    My semester consisted of taking two classes and completing 150 internship hours.  In addition I did an independent study project on the domestic sex trafficking of minors.  For the internship portion I chose to work at Girls in the Game, a local non-profit organization whose mission is to teach girls leadership and life skills through participation in sports.  At Girls in the Game I served as both an administrative assistant and a part-time coach for the after school elementary program.

I actually heard about this program through the St. Olaf website when I was visiting as a prospective student.  I was interested in both living in Chicago and in the program’s focus on social justice.  During my freshman year I received an email about it from Professor Michael Fitzgerald, head of the ARMS department, saying I could get credit for my ARMS major.  From there I did further research on the ACM website and visited with Helen Stellmaker from the International and Off-Campus Studies office.  I also happened to have a friend who did the program a year before, and he was able to give me additional information and advice about applying.

I’m really glad I chose to participate in ACM’s Chicago program because it gave me an opportunity to get a small taste of life outside St. Olaf.  I think this program was particularly valuable because it combined regular coursework and research with practical experience.  Since returning to St. Olaf my experiences in Chicago have helped me to narrow my focus in my studies.  I have also noticed I’ve since become more future-oriented in setting goals and planning my life after graduation.  I would definitely suggest to other students they participate in an off-campus program or research project because it could give them space to explore and apply their academic interests to potential future career settings.  In terms of getting started, I think Helen Stellmaker is an excellent resource, in addition to department chairs and advisers.

Name: Frances Xin, 2012
Major: Biology
Concentration: Biomedical Studies 
Subject: Molecular Biology Research at Louisiana State University

In the summer of 2010, I participated in a research program at Louisiana State University. The focus of my research was to determine lung protein expression changes in mice that were exposed to petrochemical pollutants. I spent about forty hours a week in the lab and created a poster to be presented at the end of the nine-week program.

I found this opportunity, and many others, by looking on university websites and reading about the summer research programs they offer. General application materials for the programs I applied to included my college transcript (official or unofficial), resume, short-answer responses (common themes included what my career goals are, how this research experience would be beneficial for me, and contributions I would make to the lab group I work with), and/or longer essays (similar to a personal statement). I went to the Piper Center for comments and suggestions on my resume, and the peer advisors and professional staff members provided me with great input on how to best demonstrate my abilities and qualifications on paper.

Undergraduate research, in my opinion, is one of the best ways to gain experience and knowledge in your career field of interest. It has helped me not only confirm, but also re-consider, some of my interests within the biology field. During these experiences, I’ve also had the opportunity to apply the material I have learned in the classroom to a real-world setting, and I have been able to better identify the skills needed to be successful as a research scientist.

In terms of finding an internship, it is really important to set aside time to explore the various opportunities available. I also noticed that many applications are due early in the year for summer internships (ranging from January to early March for the upcoming summer), so it’s important to keep these deadlines in mind while completing application materials and asking for letters of recommendation from faculty. It never hurts to start the search process early!