Syracuse University Magazine

Collaborative Rewards

Collaborative Rewards

Mentoring partnerships play a vital role in introducing undergraduates to the challenges and joys of original research

By Amy Speach

A few years back, biology professor Ramesh Raina mentored an undergraduate student who became so devoted to scientific research that she drove to campus from her home in Rochester at 7 a.m. on Christmas, just to take a sample reading in the lab. “That’s just one of many examples of students who are given the chance to do research and then say, ‘Wow!’” Raina says. “They get really hooked on it and give it 100 percent. It’s an exciting thing to see.”

As chair of the biology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, Raina considers providing opportunities to work one-to-one with a faculty member and contribute to original research an essential part of a quality educational experience—not only for science students, but across disciplines. Those opportunities abound at Syracuse University and take many forms, from independent research or senior capstone projects to designing and carrying out lab experiments and contributing to published papers. “It helps in every aspect of student development,” says Raina, who at any given time has five or six undergraduates under his wing. “This benefits the University as well, as we attract and produce the best students by making more research opportunities available to them.”

Biomedical and chemical engineering professor Julie Hasenwinkel, who has worked with some 65 undergraduate students in her lab during 15 years at SU, says the benefits of a mentoring relationship go both ways. “It’s a nice way to get to know students on a deeper level than when you are interacting with them in a large class,” she says. “And I find it very rewarding to be able to give this kind of opportunity to a student—one that can have an important impact on them, whether it helps them get into the graduate program they want, sends them down the path of their future research ambitions, or helps them find what they want to do in their careers.”

Here’s a look at five partnerships between Syracuse faculty and undergraduate researchers:


Newsworthy Venture

Nicki Gorny ’15 was mentored by Newhouse professor Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper and online journalism department, on her honors capstone project, a study of the concept of the street newspaper—a low-cost newspaper sold to pedestrians by homeless or low-income vendors. Her project included an exploration of the potential for a successful street paper in Syracuse.

Gorny majored in Spanish at the College of Arts and Sciences and newspaper and online journalism at the Newhouse School. A member of the Renée Crown University Honors Program, she was one of seven Syracuse undergraduates invited to present at the Atlantic Coast Conference Meeting of the Minds, held at North Carolina State University in April. This summer she is an intern at The New York Times Editing Center in Gainesville, Florida. Her dream is to work as a journalist covering immigration issues.

Nicki GorneyGorny’s reflections:
“Professor Davis read my capstone about 8,000 times, so I’m eternally grateful for that. He was really good at pointing out the holes, like, ‘This would be stronger if you had a budget,’ or ‘Did you ask about this?’ I think it probably comes from having the perspective of an editor. That was really helpful—trying to figure out what I still needed to do. He would push me to go back, call again, get more information, things like that.

“I went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and talked to the staff at a street newspaper to see how it works and then spent time on the street, shooting video of vendors and talking to them and getting their perspectives. I found that people at street newspapers are really receptive and nice. They don’t mind if you just kind of sit there and ask them a thousand questions.

“This project is probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done, academically. I don’t know if I want to say it was fun, because it was a lot of work. But I really did enjoy it. And I thought it was an interesting opportunity for me as a newspaper journalism major.”

Professor Davis’s comments:
“This project really let Nicki feature what she’s learned as a journalist. She not only had the skills she needed to do the quantitative research, but her journalism training also provided skills she could use in the qualitative part—interviewing people, on-the-scene observation. Her strengths were really showcased when she hit the streets of Ann Arbor and talked to people who were selling the street paper there. She was very comfortable doing that.

“It was interesting to see, in working with her, how the project got better with every iteration. My job is to help students do a project that might be a little better than what they expected it to be. And I think that’s just a function of collaboration, not any special skill I have. I helped push her along a little bit, but she was very organized and committed. It was a tremendous amount of work, and I’m not exactly sure how she got it done. Not only did she get it done, but she got it done at a very high level.”  

View a video clip from Nicki Gorny’s research project.

Photo by Matthew Pevear


Shared Experience

Through funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program, Terrance Andersen ’15 received the opportunity to be mentored by School of Information Studies professor Jason Dedrick. As a research intern, Andersen contributes to an ongoing NSF-funded project led by Dedrick that studies smart grid adoption by U.S. electric utilities. Now pursuing an M.S. degree in information management at the iSchool, he was the sole undergraduate on a team of five students, helping to analyze, process, and visualize a set of big data on household electricity use collected over one year from some 1,000 data sources.

Having worked in the technology field for several years before pursuing a bachelor’s degree, Andersen was a 2015 recipient of the Dean’s Scholar Award, the school’s highest academic honor. This summer, he participated in the 16-day AsiaTech travel seminar before returning to his work in Professor Dedrick’s lab.

Terrance AndersonAndersen’s reflections:
“I had never researched anything before and had no experience in it. Research is a much slower process than I thought. There’s also a lot more collaborating—the entire group sitting down and discussing different ways to analyze, maneuver, crossing the barriers of technology, and using it to our advantage so we can discover things.

“We have meetings every Friday, and usually Professor Dedrick and I will chat at the meeting and afterward, to discuss how things are going: Is there anything I’m confused on, any questions? He’ll ask my advice and ideas, what I’ve learned. It’s a really smooth and integrated process. He’s very easy going and willing to be helpful all the time. And there’s a Ph.D. student, Ehsan Sabaghian, who has taken me under his wing, too, and has taught me quite a bit. I helped Ehsan with an academic paper he’s writing on the project. That was a first for me. I’m going to be writing an academic paper as well, basically telling my whole REU experience.”

Professor Dedrick’s comments:
“I went to NSF and put in for what they call a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) grant and got that, and then interviewed several students—all impressive. As good as they were, Terry really stood out to me. He was mature and motivated—someone who was ready to step into being part of a research team.  

“I don’t think of myself as, ‘I’m the mentor and I’m imparting wisdom,’ so much as, ‘You’re going to be part of this experience and then we’ll talk about how to interpret it—seeing what happened, what you’re learning, what questions you have.’

“Working with Terry has made me more aware of the potential for undergraduates as researchers and has given me a bigger appreciation for the fact that undergrads can be real assets to a research project. And in my role as associate dean for research at the iSchool, it makes me really want to encourage other faculty to work with undergrads and give them more opportunities to get involved in research.”

Photos by Susan Kahn


Fearless and Focused

Rachael Burke ’15 set her sights on working with chemistry professor Rob Doyle after hearing him talk about his research during her general chemistry class in her sophomore year. He’s been Burke’s mentor ever since, bringing her on board as part of an exceptional team and guiding her development as a scientist and researcher. During three years with the Doyle group, Burke contributed to a project that explores using a combination of vitamin B12 with a specific neuropeptide to serve as an appetite suppressant in an oral form for people who are clinically obese.

A triple major in biology, psychology, and ethics in the College of Arts and Sciences, Burke can count many achievements, including being named a Remembrance Scholar and receiving the 2015 award for Best Capstone Thesis in Science and Engineering. As a sophomore, she was selected to receive an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholarship, a competitive national award that provides financial support for laboratory research and travel. This summer, she began studies at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Rachael BurkeBurke’s reflections:
“What most interested me about Professor Doyle’s work was how passionate he was. He made it sound so exciting. He really got through why it was important, the global applicability of it—the big picture. He’s really wonderful at letting you have independence within the lab, to own your project. He actually gave me my own facet of the project. He’s very supportive.

“I got to fly out to Seattle Children’s Research Institute to work with our collaborator there. Not with Professor Doyle, but with a graduate student I was working with on this project. But he sent me out there and said, ‘I want you to see this. I want you to experience it.’ It was such a cool experience, so different from anything I’ve ever done. I was in labs, I got all my certifications and approval to work with the rats! They were fun to work with. They’re actually a lot friendlier and less scary than people think.”

Professor Doyle’s comments:
“I’ve always had a very undergraduate-oriented research lab, but I select undergraduates with specific qualifications—an elite group. They maintain a 3.7 or higher GPA. They’re all driven, fearless, and very focused. Initially, they work one-on-one with a graduate student daily. They will be heavily involved in the project, so I don’t cut them off from anything. They get a radiation license, a biohazard license, they go to conferences, they travel with a graduate student to meet with research collaborators. They get full access to the project and are treated like graduate students. But in return, they have to be completely and utterly committed.

“Rachael is very upbeat and takes it all in her stride. She never gets beat down. She never gets lost or distracted. That sort of fearlessness and positivity in the face of things not working all the time is refreshing. She’s very smart and personable, she’s committed. And she’s a born mentor. All of that will serve her well as she progresses through medical school.”

Photo top by Susan Kahn; portrait by Steve Sartori


Joyful Learning

Since her sophomore year, Brooke Baerman ’15 enjoyed a mentoring relationship with Professor Romita Ray, an art history professor in the Department of Art and Music Histories in the College of Arts and Sciences. Ray also served as a reader for Baerman’s Honors Capstone Project, a study of sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington and her work.

With majors in art history and philosophy and a minor in German, Baerman was a Coronat Scholar, a founding member of the Renée Crown University Honors Advisory Board, and a University Scholar. She has to her credit a long list of academic honors, including receiving a merit scholarship from the German government to study abroad in Berlin and a travel research grant from the honors program. This summer, she is a fellow at Historic Deerfield, an authentic 18th-century New England village in Massachusetts, where she is researching its collections and guiding tours. She then plans to pursue graduate studies.

Brooke BaermanBaerman’s reflections:
“Both Professor Ray and Professor Sascha Scott [her honors capstone advisor] had a huge impact on me. They put students first and it means a whole lot. Professor Scott has taught me how to be an art historian, because I worked so closely with her on my capstone. Professor Ray as well—she gave me feedback and I was always able to come to her and ask questions about where my research should go. So they both taught me, really, how to ask questions. And then how to start to answer them. And how to do responsible scholarship—how to give yourself background information and context for your arguments.

“Professor Ray has always had a sort of guiding hand, and she has this infectious enthusiasm for art history. Whenever I was struggling with my capstone, she was there to reassure me that it being hard means I am growing as a scholar—that it should be difficult. If it’s not, you’re probably not doing good work. Those kinds of talks really helped me.”

Professor Ray’s comments:
“Brooke is highly intelligent and bubbling with curiosity. That kind of curiosity translates into the high-level research and writing she’s undertaken. She has a mind that just wants to learn and gets excited about different ideas. When you are teaching her in a class or having a conversation with her, her eyes light up. She has this willingness to keep going from one frontier to another. I think that’s a very special quality.

“My job as a mentor has basically been one of enjoying her presence and nurturing her intellectual growth. That doesn’t just happen in the classroom. It’s really through conversation. She’d come to see me, very passionate about something, and we’d talk. It was fun to see that kind of evolution of a mind. It wasn’t just about the books. It was about thinking about the broader brush strokes, thinking about the impact art has on society. It’s very stimulating to have students like Brooke. They inspire us to stretch ourselves beyond the classroom. There is absolute unbridled joy in their learning process, and you can see it.”

Photos by Steve Sartori


Striking the Right Balance

Bo Stewart ’15 was mentored by Maxwell School political science professor Jonathan Hanson in researching, writing, and presenting a Distinction in Political Science thesis that explores whether there is a relationship between legislators’ level of personal wealth and their voting ideology.

Stewart tackled four majors as a student in the College of Arts and Sciences and the Maxwell School—economics, political science, policy studies, and Spanish—and was recognized with SU’s highest academic honors, among them: Coronat Scholar, Renée Crown University Honors Program, Remembrance Scholar, and University Scholar. He’s headed to Duke Law School in the fall, pursuing a dual J.D. and LL.M. degree in international and comparative law.

Bo StewartStewart’s reflections:
“Professor Hanson was incredible as an advisor and a mentor on this project. For a poli-sci thesis at the undergraduate level, it was pretty data and analysis heavy, and he’s very strong there. He knew how to strike the right balance between guiding me and recommending different ways to analyze the data. But I still had to discover it on my own and figure it out on my own. And I appreciated that.

“Coming into this I thought, oh boy, this is a big project. As a whole unit, it’s very overwhelming. But when you approach it in gradual steps, it really wasn’t that stressful overall. I think a lot of the credit goes to him, because in the relationship we established, there was always an expectation of progress each week. It was a very positive working relationship in that I wanted to come to him with results and questions and progress. But he never said, ‘Well, I really need you to have this done.’ He left it up to me. Which, I think, having that happen organically is idealistically what you want in a student/professor working partnership.”

Professor Hanson’s comments:
“As professors we are pulled in many different directions, and there’s not a lot of time, in general, to mentor on a one-to-one basis. So this kind of thing is a special relationship that you develop with a student. Bo is super nice and very organized and thoughtful and intelligent. He’s got an incredible interest in politics and knows so much. So it was fun to work with him. He understood that the purpose of doing research is not to be right, but to get to the truth.

“It’s always very rewarding for me to watch the development of a project from just the idea to, in this case, the fully polished senior thesis. And for an undergraduate student, this is a very big deal—to have a research project, to work one-on-one with a member of the faculty, and to really learn what it’s like to do original research for a longer piece that requires a deep level of sophistication. I think having this kind of project is so essential, for our strongest undergraduate students in particular, to go beyond what the regular classroom offers them.”  

Top photo by Matthew Pevear; portrait by Steve Sartori

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