Students Explore their interests through research

by Anindu Rentala | 9/11/18 9:00am

Dartmouth undergraduates are innovating surgical procedures, interviewing the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and investigating Dartmouth’s historical relationship with queer communities on campus. These are only some of the exciting ways students have engaged in undergraduate research. Colleges often label themselves as liberal arts colleges or research universities, but Dartmouth resides in the middle ground of these two categories. Dartmouth values undergraduate research highly, allocating millions from the endowment and current-use funding annually to supporting student projects.

“In the classroom, it can seem like the professor has the answers and the students are trying to figure them out,” said Margaret Funnell, assistant dean of faculty for undergraduate research.

“When students are doing research, they form a rich, one-on-one relationship with the professor in a collaborative effort to create knowledge and hone critical thinking skills.”

In that sense, undergraduate research is key to the liberal arts mission of the College, and students often get the opportunity to participate meaningfully in cutting-edge research.

Nishi Jain ’21 and Megan Zhou ’21 both arrived on campus with some research experience from high school and knew they wanted to conduct further research at Dartmouth. Through Dartmouth’s Women in Science Project, Jain and Zhou were connected with research projects led by Dartmouth professors. As early as their freshman winter, Jain and Zhou were heading to the lab for three-hour blocks at least three times a week.

“WISP recommends students do six to eight hours of work on their project per week, but depending on the project students will dedicate more or less time,” Zhou said.

Jain’s project continued into the spring and had remarkable results. Working alongside engineering professor Ryan Halter, Jain researched dental surgery procedure. They found that a significant proportion of oral surgeries produce permanent dental damage. Jain helped develop a technique that will produce a warning signal to notify surgeons two millimeters before they accidentally drill into bone.

“Two millimeters is incredibly significant in the surgical context,” Jain said.

Next year, Halter’s team, Jain included, will work to optimize the technique and get an even earlier warning signal before they present it to hospitals. Jain is optimistic that the technique will be implemented, considering it is easily adaptable to existing hospital infrastructure and has the potential to reduce lawsuits from surgical damage.

“Although many students are concerned with gaining research experience for medical school applications, it is intellectual curiosity and the prospect of tangibly improving people’s lives that helped me get through frustrating days when you find out an eight hour experiment has to be re-done because of a single misplaced wire,” Jain said.

Students

sometimes come across these opportunities serendipitously. Geo Morales ’21 was aware that Dartmouth offered several research opportunities, but had few expectations about what, if any, type of research he might endeavor.

Morales registered for LATS 3, “Introduction to Latin Studies” with history and Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies Professor Matthew Garcia his freshman spring. The class was tangentially related to Morales’ prospective major in history and connected to his cultural background. Two months later, Morales found himself planning to stay on campus the summer after his freshman year to take on a research project with Garcia. Garcia introduced the prospect of taking on research assistants to the class near the end of the spring quarter. This summer, Morales has worked to collect the oral histories of various members of the Congressional Hispanic caucus and plans to travel to Washington D.C. to conduct in-person interviews.

Katie Carithers ’20 was similarly motivated by her experiences in class. English professor Christie Harner’s class on Victorian children’s literature piqued Carithers’ interest in researching gender fluidity and destabilized masculinity in stories of Peter Pan. Harner suggested Carithers consider the Rauner Special Collection Library’s Student Research Fellowship, so Carithers took a trip to the archives to read about early 20th-century, all-male Dartmouth.

As an English major and an extracurricular actress, Carithers was intrigued by the Dartmouth Players, the College’s former all-male theater troupe. When the Dartmouth Players put on shows with female characters, some of the male students were required to impersonate women, which today has strong connotations of drag. Some of the Players kept their female costumes on outside showtimes. In addition, later records report that the Players lived in a house together. These all prompted suspicions among students and administrators about whether these men were homosexual. Some of the Players themselves questioned their feelings and actually approached administrators about feelings of homosexuality, offering to resign from the College. They were referred to psychologists. Another incident that intrigued Carithers was the expulsion of a Player referred to in documents as “Goodwin.”

“Goodwin was particularly expressive, but refused to resign,” Carithers said.

Ernest Martin Hopkins, the College President at the time, acting with the approval of other administrative committees ended up expelling Goodwin for drinking alcohol during Prohibition. Even though these events all occurred during Prohibition, Carithers’ research suggested that drinking and alcohol violations were commonplace.

Dartmouth is still engaged in a conversation about gender fluidity, and theater continues to be a vehicle for the discussion. Last fall, the theatre department produced “Cabaret,” which sold out every night, and in which Virginia Ogden ’18 played the emcee, a traditionally male role.

Whether students’ engagement in research was well-planned or unforeseen, taken on as a freshman or a senior, the experience is often transformative. Peter Sutoris ’11 went to the Marshall Islands on an off-term and filmed a documentary about issues of development, globalization and education, using grants from the Undergraduate Research Office and the film studies department. Afterwards, Sutoris wrote an honors thesis about development narratives in India, for which he traveled to India and the U.K. to do archival research and interviews, supported by research grants from the Undergraduate Research Office and from the history department.

“These projects were definitely important in exploring my interests in development, history, anthropology and film,” Sutoris said. They gave me a better sense of what I wanted to do.”

Sutoris’ undergraduate thesis ended up becoming a book published by the Oxford University Press, and Sutoris is currently finishing up his PhD in international education reform at Cambridge University.