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Students showcase research in symposium

Joe Palca believes undergraduate students can make important contributions to their fields. Photo by Aaron Juarez.
Joe Palca believes undergraduate students can make important contributions to their fields.  Photo by Aaron Juarez.
Joe Palca believes undergraduate students can make important contributions to their fields.
Photo by Aaron Juarez.

In his speech “A Good Idea is a Good Idea: Advanced Degree Not Required,” NPR science correspondent Joe Palca insisted to his audience that while graduate school may be useful, it is not necessary for creating a robotic arm or making incredible discoveries.

The Center for Humanities and the Office of the Dean hosted the Student Research Symposium this week from April 6-9, and featured Palca as a keynote speaker and a series of presentations of student research that covered topics from dance choreography inspired by the healing process to artistically making paper by hand.

To prepare for the symposium, Director of the Center for the Humanities Shuchi Kapila sent out a general call for research samples from various disciplines and then selected the most interesting topics. Unlike student research symposiums in previous years, this year’s symposium called for students from outside of the humanities division, but Kapila believes the science division would have been more heavily represented had there been more poster submissions.

“All of the [student research topics] intersect different divisions and disciplines, and that’s what I find so amazing and interesting—that work is always in more than one discipline,” Kapila said. “So there is an actual bend toward interdisciplinarity at a liberal arts college, and that is what we are also trying to celebrate here.”

As the keynote speaker, Palca complemented the theme of interdisciplinary work with his speech on Tuesday, April 7 in Sebring-Lewis. Palca showed the audience stories of undergraduate students who made significant discoveries in the scientific community, and parts of his presentation featured clips of undergraduate Rice engineering students who spent two years producing a robotic arm for a teen with brittle bone disease.

“I was just trying to honor the fact that you can do really interesting, really important [work] and sometimes get on NPR with a bit of research that you’re doing as an undergraduate,” Palca said. “I hope they feel inspired to continue their research activities. Sometimes it might seem like … it’s something for a class or it’s just a requirement, but my feeling is that if you have a good idea, you can change the world.”

During his stay at Grinnell Palca has had the opportunity to see some of the exhibitions of student research. While he said they were all interesting, he also said that his skills from his professional career could help some of the students. Palca said he was particularly impressed with Eden Marek ’15 and her work with creating paper, which was presented at the Art in The Public Sphere on Monday, April 6.

“I really wanted to say, ‘There’s a good story here and it’s true’ … but I was thinking people get wrapped up in telling details and they forget to tell the big picture of the story,” he noted. “It would be good for students to remember the elevator speech—how do you explain your work to somebody when you’re riding on the elevator with them?”

Many of the students presented research from classes or from summer Mentored Advanced Projects (MAPs). Sophiyaa Nayar ’17 first started working on her project in a theater class during the fall semester. She chose the play 3:59 AM by Marco Ramirez after acting in a different Ramirez one-act play last year.

3:59 AM follows two characters who take a drive late at night in the hope of escaping their problems, only to have to face their fears when they cross paths.

“I wanted to bring up a sort of a mirror like you’re watching theater and it’s funny … and suddenly you feel like [the actors] are speaking to you not only as an audience member but as a person,” Nayar said.

Nayar enjoyed presenting at the Symposium because she was able to work more with the actors on emotional development by doing various theater projects.

“The most intense moment was when [Nayar] shined the spotlight and started being mean to me,” said Ezra Edgerton ’16, one of the actors in the play.

Nayar had both the actors stand on stage while she quizzed them on their characters’ backgrounds and emotions. For another exercise, Nayar drove the Edgerton and his co-star Justin Leuba ’18 to the middle of nowhere and had them perform the play out in the open.

Kapila plans to further expand the symposium next year by including even more presentations from the math and science divisions. But for right now, the Center for Humanities continues to host the Century of War symposium, and the next lecture will be in later April.

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