Inquiring Minds

Undergraduate research gives students unique opportunities to think critically and explore their passions. Meet three recent VWC graduates whose curiosity and hard work earned accolades on campus and beyond.

By Leona Baker
Photos by Janice Marshall-Pittman

“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” —David Foster Wallace

BETWEEN THE LINES: English major Mike Connors received a grant to travel to the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Center to study the work of David Foster Wallace. Shown here, a handwritten draft of Wallace's novel Infinite Jest. (Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, © David Foster Wallace Literary Trust)

In David Foster Wallace’s famed 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College—later published as an essay titled “This is Water” and recently reimagined as an unauthorized viral video—the celebrated postmodern author challenges graduates to consider the “real value of a real education.”

He argues that education “has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness.” Wallace goes on to suggest that the liberal arts prepare students, not by teaching them how to think, but by giving them the freedom to decide what to think about.

During his freshman year at VWC, English major Mike Connors ’13 came across the speech and was drawn to Wallace’s colloquial style and candor.

“His novels and stories are very diverse,” says Connors, “but I think an overriding theme exists in all of them: the difficulty extant in creating meaningful human connection. It’s a theme that’s important to me because I think it applies to every person on this planet.”

As a part of his senior capstone research project, Connors zeroed in on two of Wallace’s short stories, “My Appearance” and “Good Old Neon.” He received a grant from VWC’s Undergraduate Research Program to travel to the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center to study Wallace’s work.

The Ransom Center’s David Foster Wallace Archive contains handwritten manuscripts—complete with the scribbles and scratch-outs of an author immersed in his own process. Connors was able to examine them up-close, to get a peek inside the mind of a man widely considered to be one of the most influential and innovative writers of his generation.

“When you read someone like Wallace, you think to yourself: Wow, I can’t fathom how he is able to write so intelligently and comically and urgently at the same time,” Connors explains. “But after looking at his manuscripts, the myriad changes he made in every story, the letters he sent to his mentor, I began to realize the final copy everyone sees didn’t just jump from his brain to the page. It took work. A hell of a lot of hard, lonely, lengthy work.”

Connors’ own work resulted in a 25-page research paper titled “Human Connectivity in the Fiction of David Foster Wallace,” completed with the help of his faculty mentors, English professors Gavin Pate and Stephen Hock.

Undergraduate research is a quintessential part of the Virginia Wesleyan experience and one that allows students like Connors and his fellow recent graduates Jenna Starkey and Delores Roberts the opportunity to exercise their freedom to decide what to think about.

“Undergraduate research frees students to pursue what interests them, what they have a passion for,” says Sara Sewell, Professor of History and Director of Undergraduate Research at VWC. “It’s just you and your brain and you get to figure out what you love. Research helps students to develop the highest-level thinking skills, which are essential not only for graduate school, but also for other parts of life, including both professional and personal pursuits.”

For Connors, who was a member of the Marlin lacrosse team and the College’s ROTC program, life after VWC began with a seven-year commitment to the U.S. Army where he is on track to become an Engineer Officer and where those high-level thinking skills will undoubtedly come in handy.

Power to Pursue

GOOD CHEMISTRY: A fellowship from the U.S. Department of Energy gave Jenna Starkey the "opportunity of a lifetime" to attend a summer radiochemistry program hosted by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Like Mike Connors, chemistry major Jenna Starkey ’13 earned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to explore her passion in a unique setting as an undergraduate—not in a quiet university archive but in a storied, and heavily secured, government facility in the middle of the Nevada desert.

Mentored by Assistant Professor of Chemistry Maury Howard, Starkey received a fellowship from the U.S. Department of Energy to spend six weeks in California and Nevada for the 2012 Radiochemistry Fuel Cycle Summer School program hosted by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

As part of the experience, Starkey got to visit the Nevada National Security Site, formerly the Nevada Test Site. Known as the nation’s nuclear proving ground, the site’s mission now includes a mandate to improve the management and environmental impacts of nuclear energy waste.

As one of only 12 undergraduates in this exclusive program, Starkey was paired with a graduate mentor, took a radiochemistry class and was allowed to participate in research involving a new, more efficient route for synthesizing useful materials from nuclear waste. The process involves technetium-99, a radioactive metal that can be utilized for medical imaging.

“They want to expand awareness about what they are doing,” says Starkey, “because it’s something that is fairly well known on the West Coast but not as much on the East Coast. I got to handle radioactive elements.

That’s something that not many undergraduates can say. I was trained to handle radioactive materials and got a certification to do so: Radiological Worker II. It’s pretty amazing.”

Starkey’s research presentation on her work was titled “Characterization and Synthesis of Binary Technetium Halides: A New Route to Technetium Tribromide.” She says the mentorship she received during the program made her recognize how she could use the things she’d already learned and put them into practice.

“They made me feel like I was so intelligent. I realized I did know this stuff— that I just had to access information I already had. It was one of the best summers I have ever had. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I went out on a limb and it turned out to be this incredibly rewarding experience.”

Starkey plans to spend some time teaching but hopes to pursue her doctorate and eventually a career in radiochemistry in which she can increase awareness about the often unseen processes that affect our daily lives.

Diversity and Determination

DIVERSITY MATTERS: Dolores Roberts presented her research paper on diversity in the workplace at the 2013 Society for the Advancement of Management Conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Dolores Roberts ’13 radiates positive energy when she walks into a room. It’s easy to see why this mother of two teenage daughters and avid runner was readily able to make the transition into college life.

“I was really concerned when I got here as a non-traditional age student that I wouldn’t fit in,” Roberts admits, “But because from day one, my very first class, we were put into teams— that really helped me to feel like I was part of the school. I instantly felt connected. I felt like I was a Marlin.”

Roberts was able to draw on her experiences as a working professional—18 years in government contracting—when it came to participating in class assignments and thinking about what she might like to research before completing her degree in business at VWC. For most of her professional life, she was often the youngest person in any given work situation.

“I found that because I was younger, I could learn from my coworkers’ vast experience. And they could learn from my different points of view, my background. It helped the team to work better.”

She thought it would be interesting to research how the presence of different perspectives—including those related to age—might help or hurt a group of people working on a business project. She looked at all kinds of diversity: different abilities, interests, backgrounds, lifestyles.

“They all bring different qualities to the team,” she says. “So if everybody has the same background—they’re all farm girls from the same small town—they’re all going to have similar ideas. Not that they won’t be good ideas, but the amount of ideas that come up is limited.”

Roberts’ mentor, business professor Paul Ewell, encouraged her to submit her research paper on the topic, “Diversity in Work Teams,” and she was invited to present it at the 2013 Society for the Advancement of Management Conference in Arlington, Virginia.

“The paper is about not just teamwork, but how much diversity is necessary to create the right amount of cognitive conflict for a team to be effective. I got such positive feedback from the discussions for my presentation at the conference. I was smiling ear to ear. I felt so honored.”

Roberts was also able to put her own teamwork skills—and her passion for running—to the test as part of an internship she completed while at VWC. After graduation, she was thrilled to be offered a full-time position by the same company where she did her internship: locally based J&A Racing, which hosts the Anthem Wicked 10K in Virginia Beach and other racing events.

The job is a “perfect fit,” she says. Roberts doesn’t rule out post graduate study and hopes to carry what she’s gained at VWC into everything she does.

“I’m very passionate about learning. I just feel we should never stop learning. It keeps us alive. It keeps us interested in the world.”

Each year, with the guidance and support of dedicated faculty mentors, close to 100 Virginia Wesleyan students undertake the challenging task of producing original research. Whether focused on hot-button issues in business, technological developments in radiochemistry or the underpinnings of contemporary literature, undergraduate research helps VWC students establish lifelong learning patterns and ways of examining the world from different perspectives.

“We are a liberal arts college,” notes Sara Sewell. “Liberal arts, by definition, means that we engage a wide range of intellectual issues from an array of perspectives. The Undergraduate Research Program helps students to see the relationships between various disciplines and challenges them to think in different ways.”

In 2013, the College revamped its annual Undergraduate Research Symposium to reflect a more interdisciplinary approach in which student work from all three academic divisions is featured. The next symposium will take place during the spring 2014 semester.