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Roomfuls of research

From biology to art, SMSU students present their projects at annual, and always-growing, Undergraduate Research Conference

December 6, 2012
By Jenny Kirk , Marshall Independent

MARSHALL - More than 200 students from 19 different programs geared up for the 7th annual Undergraduate Research Conference Wednesday at Southwest Minnesota State University.

Initiated in 2006 by Dr. Emily Deaver, environmental science professor at SMSU, the conference has grown immensely. A total of 67 presenters took part in the first conference, giving 21 oral presentations and displaying 27 posters. Participation was also limited to those students in environmental science, biology, physics and chemistry programs.

Because of the positive feedback, the conference expanded to include all disciplines on campus the following year. After continuing to grow each year, the 2012 conference has stretched to include 49 oral presentations, 102 different posters and six original pieces of art.

Article Photos

Photo by Jenny Kirk
Southwest Minnesota State University senior Kyle Berndt stood next to his poster board on Minnesota Volunteers and spoke with Brittany Krull, assistant director of student success at SMSU, during the 7th Annual Undergraduate Research Conference Wednesday on campus.

"It's gotten to be huge," said SMSU professor Joan Gittens as she inspected the projects of her American history students. "It's perfect. It's what they aim for, with the final presentation. It used to be somewhat anti-climatic when the classes used to just give their performances to each other. Now it's a much bigger thing. It's a terrific institution."

Gittens credits both Deaver and the students for making the conference such a success.

"This is Emily's brainchild," Gittens said. "She deserves so much credit for it. It's nice to have this. The students are required to do this and they take it seriously. It's wonderful."

SMSU senior Julia Viviana Santiago went through a lot of emotions as she conducted research on her project called "The Empty Pages of History: Everyday Life of Children in the Holocaust."

"My brother was in a play when I was in fourth grade and it was a play called 'I Never Saw Another Butterfly,' and it was all about the children in the Holocaust," Santiago said. "Ever since then, I fell in love with the play. Even though it's something that is so terrible, it was also amazing. There was so much stuff to learn about. I just had to learn more about it."

The title of her project, Santiago said, was inspired from a quote in one of the books she researched, pointing out that there was not much information about the children during the Holocaust.

It's not that there weren't a lot of children involved, either. As Santiago found out in her research, approximately 1.5 million, of the 6 million total Jewish people killed, were children.

"I learned about the United States not letting Jewish children in, which I thought was just incredible," she said. "I didn't know what to think. I was studying it and I was crying. It was bad. And like how adults were treating children who didn't even do anything. I couldn't even believe it."

Santiago, who is looking to get a history major along with a French minor, had never presented before Wednesday, but she found the experience beneficial.

"It's interesting," she said. "Everyone has something different to ask, and if they know something, they throw that at you and you're just like, 'oh, I didn't know that. I'll have to do more research now.'"

Finding out that a friend's grandmother was a child who survived the Holocaust personalized the project even more.

"She was about 12 when it started, and I had her journals, from up until she went in to the concentration camp," Santiago said. "It's amazing to see what she remembered after she made it out alive. She wrote everything down. The journal entries ended about 1943 and then they restarted in 1946."

The biggest challenge Santiago encountered was that she was either getting all the same information or that she got widely differing information because people remembered things differently.

Though a lot of work was involved, senior Kyle Berndt said he readily found primary sources to use for his project called "Minnesota Volunteers, Early Minnesotan Leaders."

"The Minnesota Historical Society has made a lot of their primary sources available online now, so it's made it almost too easy to do this at times," he said. "I was trying to do specific things and somehow I'd find it within 20 minutes, as opposed to hours when I'd look in a book for it. You could really find what you wanted quickly."

Berndt had been working on his project since February, he said, and eventually narrowed down his research to the four men who he believed were instrumental to the Minnesota Volunteers First Infantry Regiment, and to Minnesota in general, because of their commitment and service to the state. Along with the posterboard and presentation, Berndt also did a thesis paper, which ended up being 22 pages.

"Most of the undergraduates here only had to do maybe 10-15 pages," he said. "So 20 was quite a bit. But it really wasn't that difficult. I could have gone on longer if I had wanted to. There is just so much about these men that I could talk about, but I tried to frame it into the Minnesota Volunteers perspective."

Those highlighted included Willis Gorman, Alfred Sully, George Morgan and William Colvill.

"They really defined what service is to Minnesota at a time when Minnesota had just become a state, and even before, for some of them," Berndt said.

Most interesting, Berndt said, was the Gold Rush type explosion that occurred in Minnesota in a 10-year period. He found that the Territory of Minnesota grew from 6,077 European settlers, according to the 1850 Census, to 172,123 settlers in 1860.

One of Berndt's biggest concerns was how his posterboard was going to be printed. But after seeing it for the first time, he was pleased.

"All the pictures looked great, which was my biggest concern," he said. "I'm happy with it."

Berndt was also pleased with the overall experience, which he feels will help him in the future.

"More than anything, I think this just prepares you for work," Berndt said. "You have to prepare everything, map it and get it how you want it to look. I think that's the biggest problem with people when they get a job, is that they never learned how to do this kind of thing before."

Lauren Teal chose to do a project on what many would consider a taboo subject: "Portrayal of Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual (GLB) Characters in the Media." Using Cedric Clark's model of research on minorities (1969), which includes four stages of media representation - non-representation, ridicule, regulation and respect - she found that most of the eight current television shows she researched had successfully passed through the first stage and mostly through the second stage.

"I found out that for the most part, we are in a regulation type stage, which would be that gays and lesbians are part of episodes and are interacting, but they're not very predominant," Teal said. "They're more of a background character even though they're supposed to be a main character.

"Some of the shows are actually moving to respect, which means they are able to have open relationships, with children and marriages and are able to show love towards each other, on television. But we have a long ways to go still. We're nowhere near where we should be to actually show equality."

Though she wishes she could have viewed more, Teal observed the first and last episodes of "Grey's Anatomy," "Happy Endings," "Modern Family," "Smash," "Happily Divorced," "Pretty Little Liars," "Shameless" and "Southland."

"'Modern Family' showed the most acceptance," she said. "Mitchell and Cameron are both main characters. They're married and they adopted a daughter. We get to see into their lives as a gay couple, which is very rare."

Teal believes that as homosexuality becomes more accepted culturally, it will also become more accepted on television shows, as there appears to be a parallel between them.

"I think it's back and forth," Teal said. "I would like to say that culture influences media because people won't watch shows that they don't like. And if the main cultural idea is against something, most of the time, producers won't put it into their show."

Teal also drew reference from the recent election results, where Minnesota voted against amending the Constitution to define marriage as a man and a woman

"The students rise to the occasion," SMSU professor of biology Pam Sanders said.



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