He calls it “fire in the gut.” It’s the excitement, the burning drive to work through a problem and see the solution. It’s staying up at night, turning something over and over in your head and feeling exhilarated when you finally come up with an answer, says Chris Hardin, Professor and Chair of the Nutritional Sciences Department.
Until now, SyndicateMizzou has been highlighting the research and creative activities of MU faculty and staff. This current feature represents the first step in a new endeavor—to offer a survey of some of the exciting work being done by MU graduate students. Beginning with the Life Sciences, we have interviewed a handful of exceptional students, asking questions about what forces drew them to their specific area of research, the differences between undergraduate and graduate school, and why this research is significant. Whether they seek to find treatments for breast cancer and muscular dystrophy or better understand the science behind microscopic earthworms, soybean pathogens, oilseed production, or the ecology of forest-dwelling songbirds, watching these students talk about their work in their own words is nothing short of inspiring.
Can nest conditions predict what kinds of predators can masticate a bird? What effects do controlled drugs have on the formation of persistent follicles in beef cows? How resourceful is the neglected art of video poetry? These were just some of the questions that approximately 120 undergraduate students were attempting to answer during the summer of 2007.
The Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievements Forum, held at the end of July at the Bond Life Sciences Center, allowed students to present their scholarly research projects to the public. MU students specializing in an array of concentrations were stationed at posters describing their findings.
As Professor in the Classics Department at MU, Daniel Hooley’s research includes Roman poetry, the classical tradition, and translation studies, about which he has written three books, including his most recent, Roman Satire (2006). Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota, where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot. The dissertation became his first book, The Classics in Paraphrase: Ezra Pound and Modern Translators of Latin Poetry (1988).
Metabolism was the perfect science for Hardin to study both because it has an immediate impact and because it can be tested. Hardin’s mother was a physician and his father was a philosopher, so studying metabolics seemed to make perfect sense.
The Peace Corps fellows are enrolled in one of six programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. The Peace Corps Fellowship Program benefits the returned volunteers with financial support, but there are also deep benefits to the MU community. Just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill Chancellor Deaton’s goal of globalizing the campus.
The Peace Corps is active at MU on several levels, explains Donald Spiers, Coordinator for the Peace Corps Fellows Program, which was adopted by MU in the summer of 2007. “Going through the Peace Corps experience, immersing yourself in the culture, speaking the local language: that all opens different cultural doors and different ways of looking at the world,” Craig Hutton observes. “I think that is part of what we bring to MU’s campus and hopefully to the larger community as well.”
Kate Fjell offers similar sentiments: “Having been a Peace Corps volunteer, my entire perspective is so different. I think globally, or at least I try to. It is really hard for me just to think about what something means just for Missouri or for my town or my family. I’m always thinking about other people out there in the world.”
Because few Americans know much about Malawi, Ecuador, Paraguay, Niger, the Caucasus, and Armenia, having someone at MU talking and writing about these places helps to educate others about these faraway locations. Nick Spina, for instance, sees how his unique Peace Corps experience benefits the field in which he is currently studying: “Political scientists do a lot of work in international relations, and I bring a unique perspective to that. I was in a developing country for two years doing hands-on development work, so I know more than just what you would read in a book.”
“There are a lot of students who don’t have international experience,” Matt Rysavy notes, “so just being able to be in class and add a different idea or a different way of looking at or structuring problems… I think is very useful for other people. The American value system is so much different from a West African value system, so just incorporating that into different discussions, group projects, and papers [is helpful]. There have been a lot of times after class when people have said, ‘I never really thought of approaching a problem that way.’”
Offering another example from the classroom, Julie Feeney explains: “A lot of people say, ‘You went to a developing country? You must have seen so much poverty.’ I can say, ‘Well, there is poverty here in the United States, which I have seen and is equally as horrifying.’” “I think class discussion is always enriched by having as many different view points [as possible],” concludes Fjell. “They all enrich the conversation…. I’m just another of those people who can help provide a different perspective.”
It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while they tried to determine their career goals. In others, it was already compatible with their ambitions. Regardless, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had irreversibly changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given.
â€¢ Julie Feeney, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, joined Peace Corps right after college to help her narrow her career goals. “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people…but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world. I met someone who was doing Peace Corps, and it just seemed like a perfect fit—a way to travel and a way to get work experience in a safe setting, so I decided to apply.”
â€¢ Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, also thought about joining the Peace Corps after college, during a time when his job search “was floundering.” Having majored in sociology, he wanted to experience another culture. “It’s a nice system because the agency pays for everything while you’re there,” says Rysavy, “and it’s world-renowned as being a good development agency.”
â€¢ Nick Spina, from Michigan, also joined Peace Corps because its connection to his area of study. “I was an economics and political science major, and did a lot of international studies…. I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying. I’d also done a good amount of volunteering…so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, joining the Peace Corps provided a solid way to learn a language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” Spina adds. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently.”
â€¢ Craig Hutton, having grown up outside of Macomb, New York, explains that he is “one of those people who absolutely has to see what (and who) is on the other side of the next hill.” He switched colleges, in fact, to find an internationally focused academic program and campus, and he even studied abroad twice. “When I arrived at my senior year, I hit that familiar “what next?” point. I knew that graduate school was in my future, but I didn’t know where, and I certainly had no idea in what.” At a career fair, Hutton found himself standing in front of the blue-clothed Peace Corps table. “The more I read about the Peace Corps volunteer experience," he remembers, "the more I realized this was the right opportunity at the right time. Looking back on it now, I see my Peace Corps service as the place where it all came together.”
â€¢ Kate Fjell, hailing from Seattle, Washington, already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade, and had previously studied abroad. “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus or in the big cities or just passing by to check it off my list. I want to say that I have lived there and have a feeling about what living in this place is like.” And, Fjell adds, “I wanted to feel like I left something good behind, instead of just money. So I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
“I don’t know exactly why I got interested in biology,” recounts Cone. “I was interested in medicine, so I started college thinking that I would be a medical doctor… But pretty soon I realized that wasn’t the kind of work that I wanted to do. So I started leaning more towards research.” Because of her own experience, Cone advises students accordingly: “You can turn out okay even if you don’t know what you want to do right now. So you just have to look for opportunities and keep your eyes open. Listen to what people are telling you, and to what sounds cool, and believe that nothing is impossible. In science it is common to totally change fields, to do your Ph.D. in one thing and eventually end up working on some other topic. Getting a Ph.D., after all, is about learning to be a critical independent thinker.”
When asked, each individual reveals ideas about their post-graduation plans. When he graduates, for example, William Donald Thomas plans to continue the same type of research in molecular biology, in search of better treatments for breast cancer. Brian Bostick is a MD/Ph.D. student, earning a medical degree alongside a Ph.D. He explains: “My hope is to combine both clinical work as an MD, working with patients, but also to keep a research career going.” As such, Bostick intends to keep developing treatments for heart disease and “try to transfer those breakthroughs we are having in the laboratory to the bedside and help human patients.” Regarding his own ideal plans following graduation, Severin Stevenson says he would like to work in private industry for a while, but hopes that after some years of this he will return to teaching.
“There’s actually a lot you can do with a Ph.D.,” says Erica Racen. “Traditionally, people think that you go into academia and have your own lab. But I have a passion for teaching. Having come from a small liberal arts college, I would like to go back to that environment and teach.” Amy Replogle similarly reports a passion for teaching, saying, “I would love to become a professor at a small institution.”
While Andrew Cox is not certain what direction to take after graduation, he knows that he loves doing research. “I am less thrilled with the grant writing, the constant rejection, and the cut-throat nature of academia,” he responds. If he had to guess, Cox suspects that he will eventually teach: “I love interacting with students. There is really not much more thrilling than getting someone interested, involved, and engaged in research.”
Asked about how the experience of being an undergraduate student compares with that of being a graduate student, each of these students responds with parallel remarks about the added work, responsibility, and pressures, as well as the opportunity for autonomy in their research and the personal rewards gained from their work.
As an undergraduate student, for instance, Erica Racen recalls that while she went to classes and studied for exams, she felt she could “leave school at school.” Graduate school has been very different in that regard. Now finished with her coursework, she explains: “I don’t take classes anymore, so I am in the lab all day long. It’s fun!” Similarly, Amy Replogle recalls the biggest change she experienced in becoming a graduate student: “As an undergraduate, going to class was my job. When I came to MU for graduate school, this was reversed. While class is still important…my job has become my research project. So it is like having to go to school full time and having a full-time job. That balance was the hardest thing for me to get used to.”
Several individuals note that, as graduate students, they must be independent and self-motivated. Racen, for instance, describes her weekly routine: “I wake up every day and plan my own experiments. I decide what I need to get done, and I do the research. I have to think about it constantly to figure out what is the right experiment.” Brian Bostick agrees: “Graduate school is a lot more self-directed. When you are an undergraduate student, you take classes and tests. While you have some of that in graduate school, a lot of it involves learning on your own what you need to do your research, about the field, and where your research fits into it. At the same time, beyond the science, you are also working on your writing and communication skills to be able to present what you’ve learned.”
Andrew Cox likewise recalls having fewer responsibilities as an undergraduate student. Now finding and funding his own research, writing academic papers, and taking graduate-level classes, Cox finds himself being far busier than ever before. However, Cox appreciates the increased autonomy in his work: “I have an advisor, but I am essentially my own boss, and all the responsibilities that come with that keeps me busy.” Before coming to MU, Cox “worked at a desk in the corporate world.” He admits that there are times now when he wishes he could just go home and turn off his brain at 5:00 pm as before. “That doesn’t happen in graduate school,” says Cox, “because you are always struggling just to keep up with your work load. But I would never ever go back to what I was doing before. This is much more rewarding. I loved being an undergraduate student, but there are deeper rewards available to graduate students.”
While being a graduate student is a lot more work than being an undergraduate student, acknowledges Stevenson, “it is definitely worth it.” In fact, “it’s phenomenal; I’ve learned an insane amount in a short amount of time.”
All of these students agree that undergraduate and graduate school present two different learning styles and environments. While the former provides an introduction to the subject matter, “the questions and the problem-solving skills become more refined in graduate school,” suggests William Donald Thomas, whose advice for undergraduate students is as follows: “Regardless of your major, pay attention to those core classes that you take, for example, chemistry and general biology, because those are your foundations and will help you progress in graduate school.”
Yoon speaks proudly of the Design With Digital Media program, which includes M.A., M.S., and Ph.D. tracks. “We have a great program,” she says. “We have a good group of teachers and students coming from all over the world” to study the intersection between technology and architectural and interior design.
Dan Hooley first became interested in studying the classics through an “accidental journey,” studying the western classics as an English and Humanities graduate student at the University of Minnesota where he focused his studies on modernism and wrote his dissertation on how Latin poetry was translated by American modernists such as Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot.