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April 5, 2018

Undergraduate Research Day celebrates 20th annual event

The goal of Undergraduate Research Day is to involve students in their own learning, to develop teamwork and pride, to enhance interdisciplinary learning and to share in the exhilaration of discovery. Students from all four colleges at UM are invited to engage in research, scholarship and creative activity with faculty mentors, demonstrating their research via posters and oral presentations.

Through the Undergraduate Research Program at UM, students are given the opportunity to travel to national conferences across the U.S. to present their work. Students can take undergraduate research for credit hours and work one-on-one with a faculty member. Working directly with a faculty member offers a variety of benefits and is a great deal more instructional for the student. Research at Montevallo not only prepares students for the future but also instills confidence in all who participate.

The initiative for Undergraduate Research Day at UM began when former Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Michael Rowland, professor emeritus, attended a National Undergraduate Research Day sponsored by the Council on Undergraduate Research. There he became convinced that Montevallo had the faculty and students who would benefit from an organized undergraduate research program because they were naturally inclined to work together on such projects. Faculty and students were already working closely together on many projects. According to Rowland, in many respects, the foundation for Undergraduate Research Day at UM already existed, especially in psychology.

In December 1996, a team of five faculty members, which included Rowland, Dr. John Burling (psychology), Dr. Houston Byrd (chemistry), Dr. Bill Jones (math chair) and Dr. Jimmy Ochoa (math), traveled to a two-day workshop with the purpose of creating an undergraduate research program. Once this groundwork was established, plans were formulated for UM’s inaugural Undergraduate Research Day in spring 1998. Rowland credits the success of this endeavor to former President Robert McChesney and former Provost Wayne Seelbach.

“They were supportive in every way imaginable. They also attended every Undergraduate Research Day. Several years into the program, President McChesney arranged for the UM Foundation to make a substantial annual financial contribution to support the different aspects of undergraduate research. Later, alumni started to support the program as well, in particular Dr. Jo Rayfield ’62,” recalls Rowland. The support allowed students to attend the National Council on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) Conference.

In subsequent years, the program continued to grow and flourish under the coordination of Dr. Byrd, followed by Dr. Mike Hardig, Dr. Casey Bassett and Dr. Tracy Rockco, then jointly Dr. Ruth Truss and Dr. Cindy Tidwell. Tidwell has led the efforts solo since 2012.

When the opportunity to serve as the coordinator of Undergraduate Research Day became available, Tidwell was excited to step up. “Undergraduate research can be transforming. It’s an experience that, across campus, can make a big difference in people’s lives. It opens a lot of doors that may not necessarily be opened otherwise,” she said.

In recent years, students have received travel awards to present their research to discipline-specific conferences. The University also takes ten students to the annual COPLAC southeast regional meeting of undergraduate research. When Dr. Suzanne Ozment became provost at UM in 2012, she added monetary awards for the top students presenting research.

Beginning in fall 2016, the Undergraduate Research Program has awarded $500 scholarships. “Because of the funds Dr. Jo Rayfield has provided, this year we were able to start giving an Undergraduate Research scholarship in the fall and in the spring,” explained Tidwell. This gift, along with funds provided by the UM National Alumni Association, made the 20th annual Undergraduate Research Day one to celebrate.

Alumni Share Their Thoughts and Experiences of Undergraduate Research Day

I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in Undergraduate Research Day at Montevallo. My project, which grew from experiences in one of my English courses, led me to interview two of Alabama’s greatest writers, Mary Ward Brown and Montevallo’s own William Cobb, regarding their portrayals of white males in the New South. The process of preparing for those interviews taught me so much, and the conversations I had with these two writers are among the most memorable experiences of my undergraduate career.

When I think of that research project, it represents a point where I really took a step back and began to look and think critically about the world around me and my place in that world. The development of those skills directly contributed to my journey from Alabama to the Foreign Service. No matter where I have served, from South America to the Caribbean to the Middle East, my Alabama background has proved a remarkably relevant lens to see the beauty and complexity of other cultures. I am grateful to my Montevallo professors and my classmates for their encouragement and the support they gave me during my research project. –Bryan Marcus, 1998 participant, political and economic chief, U.S. Embassy Paramaribo, Suriname

I was interested in pursuing a Ph.D. in political science, and I saw undergraduate research as a great way to learn about research and prepare for graduate school. I spent a month at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas doing an internship with ProBar, which provided free legal services to political asylum seekers being held in immigration facilities in that area. While there, I did research on the non-governmental organizations that had arisen in the area to provide legal and social services for migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. For someone who grew up in Alabama, it was a life-changing experience.

Through the Undergraduate Research Program at UM, I learned how to conduct research and present my findings rather than just turn in a paper. As thrilled as I was with my project, I was also very impressed with all of the research my fellow students had produced. With this project, I, along with several UM students, presented at the NCUR Conference in Rochester, New York. It was the first professional conference presentation that I had ever given.

This project really was the deciding factor for me in choosing to pursue a doctorate in political science. When I began my Ph.D. at the University of Southern California, directly after graduating from UM, I was intimidated by the knowledge and past experiences of my fellow graduate students. I told myself that I had completed one large project, so I could
do another.

Now, I am a professor in the Department of Political Science at Midwestern State University, a COPLAC institution like Montevallo. We have our own undergraduate research program in which I have mentored undergraduate researchers. I try to bring the same level of support to their work as UM and my mentor, Dr. Scott Turner, gave to me.
–Dr. Linda Veazey ’99, 1999 participant, assistant professor of political science, Midwestern State University

I had some very influential professors — Dr. Mike Hardig and Dr. Clark Hultquist — who provided opportunities to work on some really interesting projects. It was really their research areas and their passion for pursuing their own work that spilled over and influenced me to engage in research myself.

Now I do research full time. The experience motivated me to pursue my own interests in environmental and natural resources law and policy. And the many professors under which I studied at UM gave me a passion for teaching.

I am so grateful to the University of Montevallo for placing an emphasis on undergraduate research. It really was a life-changing experience, and I hope the University continues to support it in the future!  –Dr. Blake Hudson ’02, 2000, 2001, 2002 participant, professor of law, University of Houston Law Center

I’ve always had a keen interest in the research process. As a psychology major at UM, I didn’t know much about Undergraduate Research Day when I was invited by the Psychology Program to participate. I’m really glad I got involved. Undergraduate research helped to determine my career trajectory and taught me a number of skills that still benefit me today. I became a better public speaker, I participated in the steps of the scientific method and I added to the scholarship in my discipline. I enjoyed the research process so much; it helped me begin to think about the possibilities of a career in academic librarianship. I followed that path after graduating and now I’m a librarian at UM. Remarkably, I’m now fortunate enough to work with students as they plan and complete their undergraduate research projects! –Amanda Melcher ’03, 2003 participant, associate professor, UM Carmichael Library

The Undergraduate Research Program at UM was the foundation of my entire career. This program enabled me to successfully apply and pursue my doctorate in historical research at the University of Oxford. Since then, I have been employed on various research projects at the University of Nottingham and the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies at the University of Wales. I have published my research in various articles and in a book, I am a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and a member of various other research bodies in the U.K.

I thoroughly enjoyed my undergraduate research experience at UM. This was a life-changing experience for me, and I am forever grateful to the University of Montevallo for offering undergraduate research as part of the curriculum. I would not be where I am today without undergraduate research. –Dr. Kelly Kilpatrick, 2004 participant, research fellow, University of Wales

The skills I gained from learning to perform and present research were incredibly helpful to my career in management, my MBA program and now as a researcher and Ph.D. student at The University of Alabama.

The skills acquired through actually doing research projects (even if they don’t translate to your eventual career path) are some of the most important a student can get from their college experience. Learning to ask questions, interpret data, think beyond surface answers and share knowledge with others has been vital to my success. I’d highly recommend students take the opportunity to participate! –Lindsey Sherrill ’07, MBA ’15, 2006 participant, research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in communication and information sciences, University of Alabama

I thought it would be a great opportunity to research a topic of personal interest. I researched African American contributions to the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Then Undergraduate Research Day really solidified my career goals. I enjoyed the research process, but I loved presentation day. I enjoyed speaking to various professors, guests and students about my research.

The long-lasting skills that I gained, such as looking at multiple perspectives, examining bias in primary sources, creating historical argumentation and presenting findings are skills I teach my students each year. –Dana Wright Marshall ’06, M.Ed. ’07, ’15, 2006 participant, social science teacher, Ramsay High School

I learned more about the nature of research, as well as the importance and impact research contributed to the field of education. I was grateful for the opportunity to bring my research home to my school after traveling around the country to present it to others. Conducting research broadened my abilities in my career and has enhanced my ability to search for best practices for working with at-risk populations. It also enabled me to have more ability to present information to my peers, clients, colleagues and superiors. –Jennifer Travis-Scott ’09, 2009 participant, substance abuse program coordinator, AIDS Alabama

Undergraduate research at UM provided me the opportunity to dive deeper into my research interests, work closely with professors I respect and engage with diverse audiences who shared my passion for history. I learned that research is a lot like detective work: looking for clues and connecting the dots until a nuanced picture emerges. I also learned that the Carmichael librarians can work miracles through interlibrary loan!

The process equipped me with invaluable skills I use daily in my career in nonprofit management. Participation in Undergraduate Research Day at UM gave me opportunities to engage and communicate with diverse audiences, a practice I regularly employ in my role as an executive director for a nonprofit. –Cristin Foster Brawner ’11, 2011 participant, executive director, David Matthews Center for Civic Life

Undergraduate Research Day allowed me to hone my presentation skills before attending regional and national conferences and set me up with the ability to talk about my research confidently in graduate school interviews.

My research experiences and the presentation opportunities UR Day provided opened countless doors for me. I am now in a joint MD/Ph.D. training program funded by the National Institute for Health, and there is no way I would have been able to enter into such a program without the research experiences and training I was able to get while at Montevallo. –Corey Duke ’13, 2013 participant, MD/Ph.D. candidate in neurobiology, UAB

From Undergraduate Research Day at UM, I learned there are so many varied and interesting things people can research and learn. I was doing molecular biology, but I had friends presenting who had projects analyzing stand-up comedy or the portrayal of gender in manga/anime or an in-depth look at the life of Julia Tutwiler.

Currently I’m in medical school at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine, and I honestly don’t think I’d be here without my research experience. The research Dr. Tinsley and I worked on led to two publications, and I’m sure that helped, too. It will also be helpful that I have research experience when I apply for residencies and fellowships later in my career, especially if I try to get a position at a research institution. –Perrin Windham ’15, 2014, 2015 participant, MD candidate, University of South Alabama

I became interested in undergraduate research because I wasn’t satisfied just learning facts in the classroom. I wanted to experience these concepts firsthand. While my major (chemistry) had plenty of labs, these felt somewhat confining. I wanted to use what I’d learned to create new things and explore new possibilities without a set of rules/instructions telling me what to do and how to do it.

From my experience in undergraduate research, I learned to organize and execute an independent project and to deal with the frustration of attempting something that had not been done before. I also gained a deeper understanding of my discipline, which would be difficult to imagine learning in the classroom.

My undergraduate research at UM was a crucial stepping stone to where I am now. –Steven Sartor ’15, 2015 participant, research assistant and Ph.D. candidate in chemistry, University of Colorado Boulder

I heard about some of the projects that various science faculty were working on, and I couldn’t believe that they were so open to having students help out. It sparked my interest, and I knew I wanted to do undergrad research at some point.

UR emphasizes the importance of critical and creative thinking. It’s a unique experience because it requires you to be skeptical, original, meticulous and open to new ideas all at the same time. Research is the pinnacle of undergraduate learning because the theoretical knowledge that you have learned in the classroom is solidified as you apply it in the “real world.” It’s one thing to learn about how scientific discovery is made, but it’s another to be a part of the discovery process. Employers and graduate schools love to see undergraduate research experience because it shows that you can think for yourself and have a desire to innovate and learn. The faculty at Montevallo do so much to help students be involved in and succeed at research. –Nick Rivers ’17, 2015, 2017 participant, entering medical school at UAB

Undergraduate Research Day is an incredible experience to not only share your research, but to also hear about other colleagues’ projects. I always enjoy learning about nuances in the world of research.

My skills as a public speaker were enhanced by this experience. It is always good to practice public speaking and Undergraduate Research Day is a great way to do that. This experience challenged me to effectively communicate my research to an audience. –Xavier Scruggs ’18, 2017 participant

Share your Undergraduate Research Day memories: today@montevallo.edu

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