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Notes from the field
Student researchers have their day
Having tackled questions from “Who is God” to “Why are more coyotes attacking humans,” 60 undergraduates convened in Fulton Hall on February 4 to present their findings at Boston College’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium. The meetings, which for three hours occupied multiple rooms throughout the building, were first held in 2007, begun by Donald Hafner, vice president for academic affairs. Their purpose is two-fold: to give independent student researchers “the experience and the reward” of presenting their work to peers and faculty, and to encourage fellow undergraduates to “imagine realms of inquiry and achievement that they might take as their own,” says Hafner.
More than half the participants had received Boston College Advanced Study Grants, which were developed in 1996 by Mark O’Connor, director of the University’s Honors Program, to improve the scholarship skills of potential candidates for postgraduate awards such as the Fulbright and Marshall fellowships. Fifty-two grants, ranging between $500 and $2,000, were awarded in 2010, triple the number in 2000.
Many of this year’s presenters had also previously published accounts of their work in the University’s undergraduate research journals (Al-Noor, Dialogue, Elements, and Ethos); and 10 percent were McNair Scholars, their investigations funded by a U.S. Department of Education program aimed at preparing low-income, first-generation students and members of other underrepresented groups for careers in academe. All of the University’s undergraduate schools were represented, as were all classes, with 24 seniors, 26 juniors, nine sophomores, and one freshman.
“I don’t like technology—that’s why I’m talking about the Middle Ages,” joked Tedd Wimperis ’11, unfazed as a computer glitch sidelined the PowerPoint portion of his talk, Ars Scribendi, Ars Edendi (“The Art of Writing, The Art of Editing”), one of five presentations at the panel titled “Ancient Cultures, Modern Questions.” For two years, the classics major had been studying medieval Latin narrative poetry from the Third Crusade (1189–92), buttressing his work in Latin with secondary sources in German, Italian, and French. He spent the summer of 2009 shuttling between his home in Connecticut and Boston College’s O’Neill and Theology and Ministry libraries as he prepared a translation of De Expugnata Accone (“The Conquest of Acre”), a little-known 896-verse chronicle of the siege of the Muslim city of Acre, in what is now northern Israel, purportedly written by Monachus of Florence, the patriarch of Jerusalem. Wimperis continued his translation of neglected 12th-century poems in the summer of 2010, drawn, he said, by “the thrill of the detective work” and the chance to bring to light “texts which have been in darkness for so long.”
Fellow panelist Adam Gross ’12 (“Funerary Archeology: The Importance of the Necropolis of Sanisera”) spent the summer of 2010 on a 10-person team excavating a burial site dating from the fifth to the seventh century A.D. on the Spanish island of Menorca. Gross described using pickaxes, shovels, and hoes to clear the rocky scrub and unearth the tombs before turning to wooden kebab skewers and Popsicle sticks to tease out bone fragments.
Han Cho ’11 undertook a different sort of exploration, a look at her own identity as an Asian-American woman—”two different worlds joined by a single hyphen,” as she said. In her presentation for the panel on “The Arts in Many Forms,” the theater major described taking classes at the International Dance Academy of Hollywood and at Improv Olympic West in Los Angeles to learn techniques for performance art. These studies helped her incorporate gesture, dance, music, and words into her storytelling, Cho said. The end product was a 40-minute solo performance, Hyphen’D-Girl, performed at the Bonn Studio in the Robsham Theater Arts Center on December 4, 2010. Cho hoped the piece would resonate with women of color, but she discovered that others, including men, responded to her themes of family pressure, self-perception, and society’s presumptions.
On the panel “Politics—Global and Local,” senior Christina Kim described her study, during the summer of 2010, of attitudes toward trial by jury in two countries new to the process—Korea, which introduced limited jury trials in 2008, and Japan, which made similar changes in 2009. Kim, a political science major who plans to attend law school, devoted most of her study to the Korean example, owing to her familiarity with the language. She researched that country’s legal system on site, in the libraries of Seoul National University and Korea University and through interviews with Korean lawyers and academics. She learned that initially many of these professionals were alarmed at the government’s plan for lay participation in the courtroom—some comparing it to asking amateurs to perform surgery. But following Korea’s adoption of what is by U.S. standards modest citizen involvement—a judge can overrule a jury’s verdict, for instance—Kim said there is growing acceptance among all Koreans that jury service “provides a sense of meaningful civic participation.” To an extent that surprised her, Kim said, both Korea and Japan, “however Westernized they are becoming, have traditions, histories, and cultures that make adopting Western processes . . . difficult, or impossible.” She added: “I liked that my preconceived notions were challenged.”
The 12 panels, from “Science and Technology at the Edge” to “Healthcare Challenges” to “Issues in Education,” were joined by seven student poster presentations, ranging from “The Nutritional Status of Three-to-Five-Year-Olds in Rural Jamaica” (Kathryn Boyle ’11) to “Mathematics Behind Cryptology: The Study of Cryptographic Algorithms, Quantum Computing, and the Class NP” (Tair Akhmejanov ’12). When the last of the sessions ended, at 4:00 p.m., presenters, faculty, and students from the audiences gathered at a reception in the Fulton Honors Library, where conversations and questions continued.
Donald Hafner noted that the Undergraduate Research Symposium “has proven contagious,” with several departments, including psychology and biology, holding poster sessions for seniors toward the end of the spring semester. Honors Program director O’Connor sees this expansion as the most important outcome of the meetings. “After only a few years the symposium is no longer novel,” he says. “Boston College undergraduates increasingly want to put themselves at the front edge of learning, because they’ve come to assume that’s the only place to be.”
Jane Whitehead is a Boston-based writer.
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