Research Builds Relationships and Knowledge

Research Builds Relationships and Knowledge

After his freshman year at Davidson College, biology student Evan Eskew spent the summer researching semi-aquatic turtle populations in five Davidson ponds. Two summers later, he studied frogs along the Broad River in South Carolina.

Both opportunities were thanks to the Davidson Research Initiative, an innovative program that broadens the academic experience for undergraduates. Other students have studied U.S. policy in Latin America, scored music to accompany an ancient Greek play, and analyzed flower art in 19th-century periodical literature.

By linking students to faculty, the program promotes “learning by doing.”

“Students can jump in and really dig into the heart of a subject and formulate their own ideas,” says program director Verna Case, a Davidson biology professor. “The beauty of doing research in the summer is that students can become a scientist or humanist without the other responsibilities they have in the regular academic year.”

Valuable Experience Through Research

A group of Davidson College students gathers in front of the Neue Wache, or “New Guard House,” in central Berlin.

Funded by a $750,000 grant from The Duke Endowment, the Davidson Research Initiative also provides money for faculty to reduce the number of courses they teach if they need to devote time to a major grant. Another part of the initiative supports “group investigations,” where students and their professors can visit museums or field sites. A class studying “post-wall” Germany, for example, traveled to Berlin for a week over winter break. Another group, with the guidance of an Economics professor, traveled to Cleveland and Chicago to study urban decline and renewal.

The initiative’s main focus, however, is the summer research program.

For several years, starting in 1996, Davidson has used grants from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to provide a summer research experience for students in science.

“And then we had the big infusion of The Duke Endowment funds, which really helped the program expand beyond science,” Case says. “In a fairly short time, the interest has grown enormously. The program serves as a model for other colleges, and it helps us attract the best and the brightest to Davidson.”

During a recent summer, 25 students had won fellowships from the Davidson Research Initiative. The competition is tough. Students with a project in mind start the process by finding a faculty member to serve as a mentor, and then submit a comprehensive research proposal to Case and a faculty committee. For the summer of 2011, Case had a file of 43 applications to review.

“With so many students here on campus now doing research in the summer, it really does create an exciting environment,” Case says. “It’s challenging for them, but the atmosphere is more relaxed. Students are learning from each other, and faculty are enjoying the time with these students. It’s an enriching experience for everyone.”

And since many of the projects contain a community service component, the benefits reach beyond the college campus. Developers working in the town of Davidson often use the students’ environmental field and stream studies, and town planners have relied on citizen surveys.

Life After Davidson

The program enhances the undergraduate experience – but it also helps make students stronger applicants for graduate schools. While research projects at the undergraduate level were once the exception, that sort of experience is becoming increasingly important for students moving on to graduate schools and preparing to enter the workforce.

One of the first Summer Research Fellows, for example, investigated the effect of predators on nesting in eastern bluebirds. The student submitted his results for publication in an academic journal and was one of only a few undergraduates to speak at a national conference for ornithologists. After graduating from Davidson, he went on to study at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Another student, Will DeLoache, worked with a group of students on a DNA-flipping mechanism. They entered the project in the MIT International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, an event that attracts experts in the biosynthetic community – and won the gold medal.

“We created something that other synthetic biologists around the world can reuse,” says DeLoache, who’s now a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. “I was so lucky to be exposed to it all.”

On a recent morning in Davidson’s herpetology lab, Evan Eskew agrees. As he holds a turtle the size of a small pancake, he says that his summer research has been “an awesome experience.”

“I picked Davidson over other schools because I felt I was going to get a chance to know my professors well and have experiences like this,” Eskew says. “The summers have been interesting and challenging – exactly what I hoped to find when I came here.”

Contact Us

Susan L. McConnell
Associate Director, Higher Education


Related Work

Area of Work

  • Academic excellence

Program Area

  • Higher Education

Areas of Work

  • Prevention and early intervention for at-risk children

    To equip children and families with skills to ensure that children reach developmental milestones to lead successful lives.

  • Out-of-home care for youth

    To drive child welfare systems toward greater accountability for child well-being.

  • Quality and safety of health care

    Improving the quality and safety of health care delivery

  • Access to health care

    Improving health by increasing access to comprehensive care

  • Prevention

    Expanding programs to promote health and prevent disease

  • Academic excellence

    Enhancing academic excellence through program and campus development

  • Educational access and success

    Increasing educational access and supporting a learning environment that promotes achievement

  • Campus and community engagement

    Promoting a culture of service, collaboration and engagement among schools and communities

  • Rural church development

    Building the infrastructure and capacity of United Methodist churches to enhance ministry and mission

  • Clergy leadership

    Strengthening United Methodist churches by improving the quality and effectiveness of church leadership

  • Congregational outreach

    Engaging United Methodist congregations in programs that serve their communities

Find Us On Facebook