Professor Louis Liotta launched Stonehill College’s undergraduate research program in a year in which the world was captivated by science in action. We watched in awe in 1995 as the space shuttle Atlantis docked with the Russian Mir Space Station, and as the Spacecraft Galileo reached Jupiter. We were introduced to the Internet, the DVD and even Buzz Lightyear, who came to us via “Toy Story,” the first wholly computer-generated film.
Yet Liotta was determined that the discoveries students made through the Stonehill Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) not be focused solely on science (which has typically been the case of undergraduate research) but instead encompass a much broader world.
“Many institutions call their research programs multidisciplinary because they get the different fields of science interacting,” says Liotta, chair of Stonehill’s Chemistry Department. “A unique aspect of the SURE program is that it serves students from all disciplines and puts a value on their interacting with each other and learning about the nature of research in disciplines other than their own.”
Now celebrating its 20th anniversary, SURE has become a signature program at the College, one in which the diversity of disciplines continues to be a defining characteristic. From six projects in its first year to 29 this year, it pairs faculty with one or more students. Together they collaborate on research that is often published in professional journals and presented at regional or national conferences — experiences that are profoundly valuable to students’ goals.
Living in Community of Researchers Provides Perspective, Life Lessons
It’s an apt coincidence that Liotta’s passion is chemistry. No matter what topic the students are researching, “chemistry” is a key element. The community formed by the student researchers and the interactions that result are as important as the research skills they develop. For eight to 10 weeks every summer, they live in the same residence complex and often share ideas and insights.
“When we are done with the workday, we all come together and make dinner,” says Christine Carroll ’17, who conducted biochemistry research with Professor Marilena Hall. “We discuss the ups and downs of the day — from the monotonous repetitive procedures to exciting new headway made in the research.”
Adds Hall, “Research is a great vehicle with which to teach some important human values: humility, integrity, honesty, kindness, generosity, optimism, pragmatism, work ethic, observation and thoroughness.”
For Liotta, imparting those values and experiences is a reflection of Stonehill’s liberal arts foundation and its commitment to educating the whole student, in heart and mind.
“In order to be successful both in a career and in life, students need to learn to interact with, collaborate with and understand other people,” he says. “Graduates can be the best-trained chemists possible. But if they don’t know how to interact with and understand others, they will not realize their potential in their career or in life in general.”
The opportunities to collaborate through SURE allow students to contemplate their research from perspectives that might not otherwise be possible.
“I interact with students who are not in my major every day during SURE,” said biology major Justin Blanch ’16, who worked with Professor Irvin Pan, examining tomato genetics. “I think this is one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in college because of the possibility that I might encounter something enlightening at any moment throughout the experience.”
An Academic Experience That Gives Students a Competitive Edge
And whether it’s regarding a tomato gene or racism in America, the discoveries SURE scholars make with their faculty partners provide them with valuable insights about the fields in which they hope to make their mark and help them solidify their goals.
“SURE research gives me firsthand skills I probably wouldn’t gain until I pursued a career or grad school,” said Love Boussiquot ’16, a communication major doing research on effective practices for classroom discussions on race and ethnicity. “It allows me to put myself one step ahead of everyone else by allowing me to become familiar with the research techniques and preparing me for what to expect when I get to grad school.”
It also leads to personal development that serves students well no matter what path they take.
“It fosters a sense of independence and confidence,” says Bonnie Troupe, director of academic development and the SURE program. “Even when their research helps them realize what they don’t want to do, that’s a success.”
An Opportunity for Students and Professors to Foster Deeper Connections
Professors also see SURE as a tool for them to connect with students at a deeper level. That certainly was the case for Professor Jungyun Gill, who conducted sociology research this summer with Emma Lorusso ’16.
“Emma took a couple of my classes, and so we had a good student-professor relationship prior to the SURE program,” says Gill. “But the SURE program brought our relationship to a totally new level in that now I see Emma more as my research colleague rather than just as a student.”
Pan says those bonds distinguish SURE from similar programs. “Most often, an undergrad joins a lab and works under a postdoctoral or graduate student,” he says. “Although this system can often work fine, the real benefit of SURE is that students get to work side by side with faculty every day.”
SURE 2015 concluded a few weeks before the fall semester began, and already Troupe and Liotta are preparing for next year. A call for 2016 proposals will go out later in the semester and final applications are due in December.
Liotta says he would like to see the program continue to grow and is hopeful an endowment can be created to fund that growth. “I would like to see SURE continue to be a defining aspect of the Stonehill experience, and I would like to see more students and professors be able to participate in the experience.”
Learn more about SURE during its annual Poster Session taking place on Friday, October 2, 12-2 p.m. in the Upper Dining Commons.