Oh the Places You’ll Go or Warning: Research Lasts Longer Than It Appears

Kalman Research Symposium
April 13, 2013
Comments by Provost Mick Smyer

As I thought about my comments for today, I immediately faced a difficult choice: a title. I was torn between two options: "Oh the Places You’ll Go", quoting that famous researcher Dr. Seuss, or "Warning: Research Lasts Longer Than It Appears", drawing on the road sign philosophy of life. I decided to tie them together.

I want to do three things in my brief remarks this afternoon: congratulate our students who have taken on the challenge of research; reflect on the lessons I learned from my own undergraduate research and its lasting impact; and highlight the common elements of this high impact experience.

Congratulations

I want to begin by congratulating all of the students who have participated in research this year and whose work we are celebrating today. By taking up the challenge of research you have dedicated yourself to getting the most out of Bucknell. And this is a characteristic that will have lasting benefits for you here and in every other setting you encounter. For example, we have just received employment data from the class of 2012, reflecting their activities in their first year after Bucknell (yes there is life after Bucknell!). Eighteen percent (18%) are in graduate or professional school — and as a former graduate school dean, I know that your research participation will prepare you well for those settings. Maybe Dr. Seuss put it best:
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who'll decide where to go...” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

So congratulations to each of you for taking on the challenge of research.

Warning: Research Lasts Longer than it Appears

But I also want to talk about the second part of my title, by using my own experience as an illustration. When I was a psychology major at Yale, I got an internship working for a college president. It happened to be at the time when the City University of New York was starting its open enrollment program, guaranteeing that any high school graduate could gain admission to one of the CUNY campuses. So my main job for the internship between my sophomore and junior year of college was to hire the faculty for the open enrollment program at Staten Island Community College. In retrospect, it is still a little amazing that I was given that responsibility. Maybe some of you have had doubts about the responsibility you’ve been given in your research?

When I returned to campus and talked with my advisor, Dr. Ed Trickett, he pushed me to connect my undergraduate thesis to the summer activity I had just completed. How many of you have been challenged by your faculty mentors to expand your research topic or focus beyond what you thought possible?

Ed is a community psychologist whose career has focused on improving the impact of schools. Under his guidance, I began to develop a proposal to evaluate the impact of the program I had set up. Eventually, this required that I work with a setting two hours away, and develop a survey to assess retention and completion rates, and other measures of effectiveness.

I did not realize it at the time, but that senior thesis project had all of the elements of a lifelong fascination for me: understanding the interaction of individuals and contexts. I subsequently went to graduate school at Duke, focusing on aging and mental health. I began by studying older adults in a state mental hospital, evaluating the comparative impact of nursing home and home care, assessing the impact of prescription drug programs and public policies on older adults' health and well being, and studying the impact of workplace context for older workers. I have also studied stress reactivity of older adults (as measured by salivary cortisol) as they moved into a life care community.

In many ways, my subsequent research over more than 40 years has reflected two principles. The first is Kurt Lewin’s dictum: b=f(p/e), behavior is a function of the interaction of the person and the environment. I have focused on that interaction in most of my work. The second principle comes from a distinguished social scientist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, who advised “if you want to understand something, try to change it.” Bronfenbrenner’s work, like my own, was based in community settings, ecologically valid settings. And he reminded us that all science is hard science — I would expand that to all research is a disciplined, at times difficult process.

What About You?

So why do I go into this detail? To help you reflect on the key elements of your success thus far and predictors of future success: the interaction of the individual and the environment.

Each of you has taken initiative to carry out research; this capacity to take on opportunities will be important throughout your life. At the same time, none of you could have done it by yourself. I am still in touch with Ed Trickett forty years later – I know that may seem amazing to you, but as I talk with alumni, they repeatedly comment on faculty who had a significant impact on them and, in many cases, with whom they are still in touch.

Finally, through the research process, you have been able to link your skills, talent, and passion to a larger set of issues, a bigger set of questions. Framing your concerns in the bigger box” of your field is another skill that will serve you well throughout life.

Again, Dr. Seuss summed up what I am trying to say so well :

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” ― Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You'll Go!

Congratulations!

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