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Skidmore College

Real researchers embrace failure

July 20, 2015
Lukas Raynaud ’17, summer researcher
Lukas Raynaud ’17 (plaid shirt) talks about the role of
nano-economics in economic growth and development.
(Peter MacDonald photo)

In true scholarly research, failure is not only expected, it is your friend. With each setback comes an opportunity—should you embrace it—to reconsider assumptions and move a project forward. Year in and year out, this theme recurs in Skidmore’s Summer Faculty-Student Research program’s midsummer meeting.

“Eagerness and passion infuse the beginnings of scholarly research,” says program director and government professor Bob Turner. “It’s about big plans and undiminished expectations.” Then, he says, “Our midsummer meeting is where we learn that experiments are not going quite as planned, that initial hypotheses are not borne out in early interviews, or that testing is going well but there are hundreds more samples to go.” (This summer, 88 Skidmore students are working with 41 faculty members on 67 projects in a wide variety of disciplines—for a complete list, please click here.)

At the July 7 midsummer session, students discussed their projects with peers from different disciplines, while faculty did the same at their tables. They referenced questions such as:

• What is your data?

• Why collect it instead of something else?

• What is the creative component of data collection?

• What challenges are there in measuring, gathering, and ensuring the validity, and valid interpretation of, the data?

Says government major Elena Veatch ’16, “I enjoyed sharing my findings on immigration politics in North Carolina with students working on a broad range of topics, from criminal justice to a small sect of Mormonism to the analysis of DNA. It definitely made me conscious of the need to talk about findings in a way that is accessible to students of other academic disciplines.”

“It was an opportunity to learn about others’ projects and experiences, including the difficulties of their research,” adds Agnieszka Brojakowska ’17, who with biology professor Jennifer Bonner is using zebrafish to study nervous system defects in fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. “Being able to present your work is fulfilling, since you can help others understand it but also get the opportunity to analyze your own research from different perspectives. It’s all part of thinking of ways to expand our project question as well as to make data analysis more efficient.”

Julia Erskine ’17, working with chemistry professor Kelly Sheppard on the genetics of how bacteria grow, says she has learned that often there is no roadmap or textbook for research. “In my previous labs we were given exact procedures and perfect explanations,” she recalls. “I learned that in the real world of science, research is never that easy. But I am now comfortable with what I do and strive to learn more. To counteract my comfort I am always on edge, waiting for things to go wrong, but not panicking if they do. In fact, I expect problems.”

Turner sums up: “Instead of frustration, what I heard from students was a renewed commitment to trouble shooting, restructuring the experiment, renewing the tests, taking apart the machine, rewriting the code, conducting more interviews. Instead of being daunted, they are more committed to finding a solution.” He adds, “Students appreciate that scholarly research is hard work but also really intellectually fun. They realize they are learning how to think like a chemist, a biologist, or a sociologist.” ~ By Peter MacDonald


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