Elmhurst College’s Research and Performance Showcase is no place for the indecisive. The 11th annual iteration, on May 2, featured presentations and performances by more than 160 Elmhurst students, crammed into four hours in four campus buildings. That means visitors had to make some hard choices.
Should we check out the saxophone performance in Buik Hall, or hustle over to Circle Hall for a presentation on the pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? Do you want to see a demonstration of a new iPad video game designed by a computer gaming and entertainment student? Hear an analysis of the political influence wielded by the women in the life of King Louis XIV of France? And let’s make sure to find time for the presentation in the Frick Center on the genetic triggers that make breast cancer cells grow more rapidly.
“It’s speed dating across the disciplines,” Elmhurst President S. Alan Ray said of the showcase during his remarks kicking off the event. “I’m amazed at the variety of topics that capture the imaginations of our students.”
The showcase featured offerings from students in fields ranging from biology to business and from nursing to urban studies. Some were experienced undergraduate researchers, who had collaborated with faculty mentors for years and traveled to academic conferences to present the results of their investigations. Others, like junior biology major Matt Geyer, were making their first public presentations. Geyer was at the showcase to explain his research, conducted in collaboration with Assistant Professor Merrilee Guenther, into the bone microstructure of sauropod dinosaurs.
“I can’t thank the College enough for the chance to do this kind of research,” he said, after walking a visitor through his project at the showcase’s poster session in the Frick Center. “You get motivated to do something and you can pursue it.”
Geyer called the exchange of questions and answers at the poster session “the really fun part” of his project. But he was just as enthused about the chance to see and hear presentations from other students. The showcase is, among other things, a chance for students to see another, more intellectual or creative side of friends they might know only from the residence hall or the cafeteria.
“There are all these people doing this great research on breast cancer cells or mushroom enzymes,” he said. “It can be surprising.”
More Elmhurst students than ever are doing scholarly research as undergraduates. In the past decade or so, Elmhurst and other colleges have increased their efforts to offer undergraduates the kinds of research opportunities once reserved for graduate students. Foundations support a growing number of undergraduate projects, and the College itself offers students and their faculty mentors competitive summer collaboration grants to support their investigations.
Even some first-year students presented at this year’s showcase, said Beatriz Gómez Acuña, associate professor of Spanish and a member of the faculty committee that organized the showcase.
“They’re getting the earliest possible start on undergraduate research,” she said. “They’re getting the mentorship, the one-on-one relationship between student and professor that we value here.”
For students conducting and presenting research, the benefits are clear: They take responsibility for their own learning and tackle the challenge of presenting what they have learned to a general audience. They also better their chances of being accepted by the most selective graduate programs.
“If you want to go to graduate school, good grades are not enough,” said Rob Butler, professor and chair of Elmhurst’s history department. “You need to go to conferences and to events like this.”
Butler mentored several students presenting at the conference, including the winner of the award for best oral presentation. Rachel Lebensorger, a junior secondary education major from Palos Hills, won for “Niebuhr’s First Ladies of Elmhurst College: An Overview of the First Year of Women Enrollment.” Lebensorger’s project grew out of Butler’s January Term class in historiography. For a class assignment, Lebensorger explored the College’s archives and became interested in the enrollment of women at Elmhurst. In her paper, she argued that the College admitted women less out of a sense of social justice than out of economic need. Women helped drive the College’s enrollment during a time of financial crisis.
The paper, she said, was her first real foray into primary-source historical research.
“It was humbling, for my first time, to be allowed to present here, let alone to win an award,” she said. She plans to expand her paper for her senior thesis, now that she has experienced the rewards of archival research.
“I felt like I was writing history rather than writing about history,” she said.
Below are glimpses of three other student presentations from the showcase.
Up the Wall
The assignment was to do the impossible.
The Mill Theatre’s recent production of Metamorphosis, adapted from the seminal 1915 Franz Kafka story, featured what must be one of the most singular leading roles in all of theatre: Gregor, the salesman who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect.
For the members of the play’s technical design team, Gregor’s transformation posed some daunting challenges.
“This is a character who likes to crawl on the ceiling,” said Shelby Westart, the production’s lighting designer. She and the rest of the team were charged with creating a world of sound, light, costumes and sets that made the fantastic seem real and the impossible, matter-of-fact.
At the Elmhurst College Research and Performance Showcase on May 2, the team explained the problems posed by the play and the solutions they devised. Their work began more than six weeks before opening night, when they began brainstorming with director Joel Huff and doing preliminary research with Assistant Professor Richard Arnold.
Stage manager Abigail Ward explained how the claustrophobically angled walls of Arnold’s Mill Theatre stage set “served a very physical production” that included elements of dance and mime and “gave Gregor something to climb up.” Sound designer Jennifer McCarthy and light designer Shelby Westart created visual and sonic landscapes that captured the play’s mood of alienation. Costumer Morgan Saaf designed layered ensembles for Gregor to evoke the stages of his transubstantiation.
“We wanted to do something ridiculously challenging and make it the best it could be,” said Westart.
There were inevitable missteps along the way. Some of Saaf’s ornate and formal costumes, for example, had to be revised to allow actors to move more athletically.
“We were making changes throughout,” said Arnold.
At any point did the team wish they’d picked something a little less challenging to stage?
“What’s the fun in that?” Arnold asked.
The marine mollusk known by the scientific name Brachidontes exustus is a tiny creature, little bigger than your thumb. But for Jessica Wadleigh, studying Brachidontes has produced some large insights, about the natural world and about herself.
Wadleigh, a senior biology major, has spent parts of the last three years working in the lab of Assistant Professor Kyle Bennett, getting to know Brachidontes and its close relatives of the western Atlantic Ocean. In a paper she presented at the Research and Performance Showcase on May 2, Wadleigh argued that gene-sequencing analyses suggest that populations of Brachidontes exustus found along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast, while virtually identical in form and structure, are in fact two distinct species, each with its own evolutionary history.
Wadleigh’s project is part of a larger series of investigations being conducted by students in Bennett’s lab. They hope to add to the understanding of how, when and why certain species developed and branched off from common ancestors.
Wadleigh said her work has already proven hugely consequential in her own intellectual development.
“I didn’t know I wanted to be a scientist before,” she said. “Now I know that’s my passion, what I want to do. And that was a lucky discovery made thanks to a very inspirational teacher.”
Wadleigh began her foray into the world of the marine mollusk not long after taking Bennett’s class on invertebrates. She at first had hesitated to enroll in the class, fearing that the topic would be too abstruse. Instead, she found herself fascinated. She headed to Bennett’s office to learn more.
“I asked if he was doing research, and he said, ‘Yes, do you want to do research with me?’” she recalled.
She has been working in Bennett’s lab ever since. She is also working with Professor James Berry on a project at Fermilab to understand more about how garter snakes take cover in the open. She plans to do graduate work in biology at Northern Illinois University next year.
She is not sure where her studies will take her, but thanks to her undergraduate research at Elmhurst, she says she knows one thing for certain.
“I want to ask amazing questions about the world.”
The War at Home
Sean Van Buskirk, a senior history major, has long been interested in stories of World War II. But it wasn’t until he took Professor Rob Butler’s January Term historiography class that he understood the war’s impact on Elmhurst College.
At the College’s Research and Performance Showcase on May 2, Van Buskirk presented his paper, “Elmhurst College During World War II,” based on research he conducted in the College’s archives as part of an assignment for Butler’s class.
“Elmhurst was permanently changed by the war,” Van Buskirk argued in his presentation. Among the most dramatic examples of that transformation—and one that created considerable controversy at the time—was the arrival on campus of Japanese-American students recently relocated from internment camps in the western United States. Beginning in 1942, a newly formed Student Refugee Committee worked with College President Timothy Lehmann and Elmhurst’s Board of Trustees to release four Japanese Americans from the camps to study at the College. “We must make our contribution so that a majority of local American people will insist on fair treatment of these Japanese and not succumb to race baiters,” board chairman Paul Jans wrote at the time.
Elmhurst’s American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts strongly condemned the effort, and the Elmhurst Press editorialized in a front-page headline: “No Room For Jap Students in This Town.”
Undeterred, the College continued educating Japanese-American students, and before the war’s end also brought to campus European students displaced by the war.
Van Buskirk said that other wartime changes included the introduction of new classes in Red Cross First Aid and “military German” and the formation of a Student Defense Council “to protect against acts of sabotage at Elmhurst College.”
“There is no record of any acts of sabotage on campus,” Van Buskirk added.
The College’s administration also created a new accelerated, concentrated course schedule that allowed students to graduate in three years by studying through the summer. The move drew student protests. Van Buskirk quoted one student who suggested the move smacked of fascism. “Others said that they just missed summer vacation,” Van Buskirk said.
The biggest change brought by the war, Van Buskirk said, may have been a dramatic increase in enrollment aided by the post-war GI Bill. From 1944 to 1946, enrollment more than doubled, from 244 to 539.
Van Buskirk’s research grew out of Butler’s assignment to delve into a local archive or library in search of a story or artifact of interest.
“The idea is to get your hands dirty rooting around and to find something, it doesn’t matter what,” Butler said. “It’s like jumping into the deep end of the pool. You don’t know what you’ll find.”
Before presenting his paper at the showcase, Van Buskirk presented at a conference at Mississippi State University in April. He learned that explaining your research can be as challenging as conducting the research.
“Sometimes that’s the hardest part,” he said. “Just trying to sound coherent.”
He can consider that a challenge met.