Donors guarantee students year-round pursuit of research passions.
By Andrew Faught
As the world increasingly turns to renewable energy sources, Charles Zhou ’15 is at the leading edge of scientific inquiry. The mechanical engineering major researches the impact of underwater turbines — used to convert a river’s current into power — on aquatic life.
Charles Zhou ’15 is working with Professor M. Laura Beninati to gauge the impact of underwater turbines on aquatic life.
“River beds are habitats for countless animals, and even a small change can disturb the delicate ecosystem,” says Zhou, of Scotch Plains, N.J. “The challenge is to create a long-term sustainable energy source that is not detrimental to the environment.”
Zhou is one of 61 Bucknell students who this year took part in the summer Program for Undergraduate Research (PUR). Thanks to generous donor support, students engage in a variety of projects with faculty mentors that not only yield important findings, but also give undergraduates early exposure to research opportunities unavailable at many peer institutions.
Because of limited academic department budgets, students receive $3,000 stipends funded by donors. The allowances are awarded on a competitive basis by a faculty advisory committee that represents all of Bucknell’s academic divisions.
“These gifts are essential,” says Zhou’s adviser, M. Laura Beninati, a professor of mechanical engineering.
The investment in research, she adds, pays dividends beyond graduation.
“Critical thinking is learned only by engaging in it,” Beninati says. “Research in which students feel motivated to think and learn is the best way of developing a skill set that will set them apart from students who only took classes as undergraduates.”
Students have benefitted over the years by gifts from supporters such as Becky and James Roser ’50. (James Roser, who served on the University’s Board of Trustees, died in 2008. The James L.D. and Rebecca Roser Research Fellowship is the second-largest source of undergraduate research funds at Bucknell.) Rather than limit their gifts to certain disciplines, the Rosers felt strongly that their endowment should be available to all majors.
“You never know what kind of collaborative opportunities will evolve between people in certain departments,” Becky Roser says. “And it’s a chance for students to get involved in something they might not otherwise have taken the opportunity to do.”
Recent research projects include “Rockets and Religion: The Religious Dimensions of the Recent War in Gaza,” “Atheism and Non-Believers’ Values Regarding Parenting and Child-Rearing” and “Exploring Worker Cooperative Models for Sustainable Local Economic Development in the U.S.”
PUR participants will take part next spring in the Kalman Research Symposium, during which they will present research results. Namesake Ernie Kalman ’56, whose gifts fund hard science and engineering research, says such opportunities “put more gas in students’ tanks, and it can help them travel further on that [research] road, or faster, or with a bigger load.”
In addition to creating the Kalman Fund for Undergraduate Research in the Sciences in 1999, he also initiated the Kalman Fund for Biomedical Education the same year.
Kalman, an entrepreneur with a background in the restaurant industry, is the largest contributor to PUR — and to engineering and biomedical sciences research at Bucknell. He has met and discussed projects with undergraduate researchers, and Kalman doesn’t parse words in describing their talents: “They’re totally amazing.”
Undergraduate research at Bucknell is comparable to work being done in graduate programs, say faculty mentors who work closely with students throughout the summer.
It’s not unusual for students, in turn, to publish research findings in journals that benefit the scientific community, says Peter Judge ’77, professor of psychology and animal behavior and director of the Animal Behavior Program.
“I’ve had graduate students who come to Bucknell and marvel at the opportunities, resources and commitment that the University provides to undergraduates,” Judge says. “They wish they had the same opportunities.”
Professor Peter Judge, psychology, Mattea Rossettie ’14 (left) and Lindsay Schwartz ’14 test the cognitive abilities of Newton the monkey.
Judge oversees research on four different species of monkey, and undergraduates investigate the animals’ social behavior and cognitive abilities. Because human DNA so closely resembles that of other primates, student research could shed new light on species distinctions between humans and monkeys.
“It helps us decipher how that small difference in DNA makes us human and how much we differ from our closest primate relatives,” says Lindsay Schwartz ’14, a double major in animal behavior and classics from Toronto. With a nod to her work at the University, she plans to pursue a doctorate in primate cognition. “I feel that I’m in a unique position at Bucknell,” she says.
Also working in the animal behavior lab this summer was Mattea Rossettie ’14, an animal behavior major from Corning, N.Y. Rossettie enrolled at the University because of the undergraduate research opportunities available to her and the chance to be an undergraduate researcher in Judge’s lab.
“I’m privileged with the rare opportunity to work firsthand with primates on a daily basis,” Rossettie says. “How often are opportunities like this an option for graduate students, let alone undergraduates like myself?”
Faculty advisers say students like Schwartz and Rossettie, already having nurtured strong research techniques, possess a competitive advantage as they move on to graduate school and careers. That’s in large part because of that strong faculty-student interaction, says Provost Mick Smyer.
“A hallmark of Bucknell’s success is the integration of faculty research and student learning, whether it’s on a dig in Thebes or in the lab in Lewisburg,” he says. “Donor support allows us to make more of these kinds of experiences available to our students. We know they have a lasting impact on our young men and women.
“A donor looking to make an impact on the intellectual life of Bucknell can be assured that this kind of support really makes a difference.”
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