Research projects provide hands-on learning for undergraduate students
University Honors students Heidi Dull of Staunton, Va., Kelly Blend of Winchester, Va., and Jackie Congress of Niskayuna, N.Y., have been working on a collaborative research project studying the emotional behavior of children — helping human development Assistant Professor Cynthia Smith in her Children's Emotions Lab.
While the students said they look forward to the results, they will have to wait for years until the project is finished. Congress, a 2009 graduate with degrees in psychology and human nutrition, foods and exercise, had been working on this study since her sophomore year. Of the three students, Congress said she spent the longest time in the Children's Emotions Lab and saw the study progress the furthest. When she began, the subjects were about 2 years old. She saw the same children when they were 5 years old.
Such studies are detailed and time consuming, requiring repeated visits of the same subjects over many years of their lives. But Smith regularly enlists student researchers. At the end of the semester, Smith will introduce her study to each class she teaches and ask for participants. In the spring when the team gathers for a party, the front steps of her home are full for the team photo.
Seeking volunteers to do research with children is one thing. But how easy would it be to find participants to do research that requires hours looking for parasites in the residue from otters' intestines? Morgan Agnew, a 2009 graduate from Wyndmoor, Pa., with degrees in biological sciences and animal and poultry sciences, agreed to participate with veterinary parasitologist Anne Zajac in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Researchers with Zajac's group want to document threats to the species and note general differences in the Virginia otter population based on sex, age, and location.
Agnew accepted a research position that gave her hands-on experience dissecting and analyzing the gastrointestinal tracts and hearts of otters, which are provided to the researchers by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Agnew concluded her stint by training other undergraduates to continue the research.
Alyssa Haak of Ingomar, Pa., an English major and a University Honors student, has chronicled these two research projects and seven others over the last three years. Her work is featured on the undergraduate research site that is hosted by the Office of the Vice Present for Research.
As a change of pace from sciences, Haak also interviewed John Cassara of Centerville, Va., a history student who looked at the history of integration of sports. Haak wrote about Cassara's undergraduate thesis topic, the integration of college football. Cassara demonstrated that collegiate football integration was an arduous 80-year process led by “unknown and unappreciated students.” His study took him to Amherst College, where William Henry Lewis and William Tecumseh Sherman Jackson were the first African Americans to play on the college football team in 1889.
The undergraduate research site was created by Virginia Tech graduate Sarah Hawes in spring 2005 as part of the Pamplin Scholars program. Hawes' first article was about Sophia Bous of Great Falls, Va., who did researched spiders in the lab of Brent Opell, a professor of biological sciences.
Hawes later collaborated with Sarah Larkins of Ashburn, Va., a communication major, to write a story about Ryan Smith of Hardyville, Va., an honors student and triple major in psychology, sociology, and political science. Smith's research focused on activities that would reduce high-risk behavior on high school prom night. He was later honored as 2008 undergraduate man of the year.
- For more information on this topic, contact Susan Trulove at (540) 231-5646.
What the students say
"At the end of the day you’ll be proud of what you create and find."
— John Cassara
Research topic: College football history
"It's an opportunity that everyone should take advantage of. ... We're lucky enough to have professors who want to take on undergraduates and encourage them in their research."
— Jackie Congress
Research topic: Childhood emotions
"This [research] definitely opened my eyes up to a lot of opportunities in veterinary medicine that isn't just seeing patients"
— Morgan Agnew
Research topic: Parasitic threats to otters
Undergraduate research opportunities at Virginia Tech are virtually endless, allowing students to work collaboratively with faculty who challenge them to think critically and creatively. These research opportunities are designed to develop undergraduate students into knowledgeable and competitive scholars. Read more.
Look through previous Spotlight stories