After his freshman year at
Both opportunities were thanks to the Davidson Research Initiative, an innovative program that broadens the academic experience for undergraduates. Other students have studied
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
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”
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
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
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
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.”
Susan L. McConnell
Associate Director, Higher Education