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Collaborative research thriving in its tenth year

Summer of ’89: A dozen Skidmore students and faculty are offered the chance to team up one on one, in an innovative pilot program of collaborative research. It will mean giving up summer vacations for long hours of hard mental labor at low pay. Naturally, they leap at it.

Summer of ’99: Nearly 140 research projects later, the 10-week program again unleashes a dozen highly motivated student-faculty teams to pursue substantive original research, free of formal classes, quizzes, and grades, with stipends and expenses provided (thanks to the W. M. Keck, Charles Slaughter, Rathmann Family, and Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, who have helped with funding). As participant Adam Wald ’94 once commented, "The program pays you to not do any-thing else. You get to do what you love."

Collaborative research on Lake Lonely
A 1995 lake-water project draws a spectator, President David Porter (left), accompanying researchers Hillary Frey '97 and geology professor Richard Lindemann.

The program’s projects spring from all quarters–anthropology, dance, education, classics, government, chemistry, biology, business, theater, exercise science, and more. Summer researchers have traveled to nearby Mohawk Indian eservations and far beyond, to Nicaragua and Tibet.

But no matter where they’re coming from or where they go, they all start with a "driving question," says Associate Professor of Anthropology Susan Bender, a four-time participant and, as associate dean of the faculty, the 1999 program coordinator. Among this summer’s driving questions: How does a pond-plant cell secrete the slime that helps it slip into nice sunny spots? Can those comical makeshift phrasings that second-language learners use when they don’t know the right words actually help them learn? And what happens when baby rats are separated daily from their mothers? Past projects have probed yellow jackets’ feeding habits, the circadian rhythms of mice, an etching process for computer chips, the concept of "the deserving poor," the making of synthetic molecules, and the painting of murals for Case Center’s Spa snack shop.

Some projects focus on real-world issues, like how firefighters perform in their heavy insulated suits, how wheelchair users fare in public places, and how Vermont’s award-winning new community-justice program is working. For that last one, Assistant Professor of Sociology David Karp and Ryan Fairley ’01 drove around Vermont last summer videotaping the 40 new citizens’ boards, whose job is to define harm done by nonviolent crimes (like minor theft, shoplifting, driving while intoxicated) and then to determine appropriate reparations and community service to restore offenders to their neighbors’ good graces.

At final presentations in July–an annual summer high point, as teams show-and-tell their findings–Fairley and Karp shared their video clips and analysis. Most citizen boards, they said, need sharper definitions of harm and more direct reparations for offenders. But the new program "doesn’t cost as much as jail–and it’s genuine and emotionally satisfying." The group also heard mesmerizing music from India, courtesy of Associate Professor Gordon Thompson and Filene Scholar Kismet al-Hussaini ’00. Other resourceful teams have presented PowerPoint computer programs, live performances, field trips (to campus science labs and to a downtown archeological dig), and props galore–from a toy guillotine (for an essay on beheadings in literature) to a large, beautiful Cecropia moth (the end result of yoke-protein breakdown in developing moth eggs).

The statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Va., begin with Civil War heroes of the slaveholding South and end with black tennis star Arthur Ashe — a progression of civic culture analyzed by the research team of American-studies major Bryn Varley '01 and faculty members Brian Black and Mary C. Lynn.

Many student-faculty pairs go on to publish their findings or present them at academic and professional conferences; for instance, Karp and Fairley presented their videos and analysis to probation and parole officers at an August conference. A high percentage of the student researchers go on to graduate school, and the program’s success has helped attract to Skidmore two more summer-research programs, sponsored by AT&T and the National Science Foundation.

But the heart of collaborative research lies less in its impressive results than in those long, shared hours where, side by side with faculty mentors, students have a chance to discover the satisfactions–and frustrations–of real research. Take Associate Professor of Biology Monica Raveret-Richter and Ava Tanny ’01. This summer the entomologist-botanist duo had first planned to study the endangered Karner blue butterfly and the wild lupines it feeds on. Instead, they agreed to compile a more-needed land-use history for the new Wilton Wildlife Preserve in nearby Gansevoort. But doing history didn’t come naturally to the scientists. "There wasn’t a nice scientific protocol in place," notes Tanny, who had to track down and consult state environmental officers, university soil maps, aerial photographs, fire departments, and old Gansevoort farmers before she could even begin to draft the detailed maps the preserve needed. "I couldn’t just walk into a lab, conduct my experiments, and record my results," she says, and then adds, "Because I couldn’t, I learned an incredible lot."

Biggest perennial complaint? "Ten weeks is too short!" as one recent student put it. But that only confirms it: collaborative research is a summer job worth leaping at.

—Barbara A. Melville


Photos: Bruce Barthell and Bryn Varley '01

 


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