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Students gain experience through new fellowship program

Posted on Aug 23, 2012
A new fellowship program offers academic opportunities for students.
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LSRI scientist Paul Hlina, left, and student Reed Schwarting discuss a plant sample he collected during his fellowship research project.

LSRI scientist Paul Hlina, left, and student Reed Schwarting discuss a plant sample he collected during his fellowship research project.

Seven students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior are getting an opportunity to work on an intensive academic project with a faculty member under a new fellowship program.

This is the first year for the Undergraduate Summer Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity Fellowships. The pilot program is sponsored by alumni Jim and Sue Swenson with matching funds from the Lake Superior Research Institute and the Chancellor's Fund.

Aimed at student success

"This program is part of our effort to expand undergraduate research as one of our high impact practices designed to engage students and to expand opportunities for learning both within structured classes and outside," said Dr. Faith Hensrud, vice chancellor for academic affairs. "Undergraduate research is one of the strategies we have selected to improve student learning and increase retention."

Students seeking the fellowships submitted formal proposals last spring to the Undergraduate Research Scholarship and Creative Activity Committee. The students chosen for fellowships are working on topics in science, business and history. Each fellowship includes a stipend for the student and for the faculty member supervising the project.

'Turned around for life'

Part of the fellowship program funding comes from Jim and Sue Swenson, long-time supporters of the university through the Swenson Scholarship program and their substantial gift for the construction of Swenson Hall.

Jim Swenson said giving students opportunities to work closely with faculty members on challenging projects can boost their academic careers. Each can gain valuable experience, build rapport with his or her professor, and emerge better prepared for graduate school or professional work.

"What we've witnessed over and over again is students who receive this kind of opportunity and work one-on-one with a faculty member are turned around for life," he said. "They are so different after they've had that experience."

For the students, the fellowships provide opportunities to gain practical experience in preparing and conducting a research or creative project under the guidance of an experience researcher. The students also can use their work to complete their required Senior Year Experience project, and several plan to present their work at academic or professional conferences.

Setting up a research project

Dan Fuller, a biology major from Sarona, Wis., is working with botanist Dr. Nick Danz to conduct a survey of Marsh Grass-of-Parnassus on Wisconsin Point, where it is considered a rare species.

Fuller and Danz worked together in setting up the project. Then Fuller took over in accumulating past research and contacting other botanists. He set up a monitoring program and conducted surveys to locate the plant in its previously known areas.

"Dan and I set out the boundaries of the project at the beginning. Dan did most of the work because I think the best way to learn how to do something is to do it," Danz said.

Career help

Fuller said the work is helping him gain experience he needs to pursue his career goals in botany and fruit genetics.

"I've gotten a lot of insight into research, setting up the project, and getting into the field to do the work," he said.

If enough plants can be found, he hopes to conduct genetic research on samples. When the project is complete, he'll submit a report to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, which tracks rare plants and animals through its Natural History Inventory.

Practical experience

Laura Sellner's fellowship project was her first opportunity to gain practical research experience.

Sellner is using UW-Superior's independently designed major to complete a major in geology. For her project she's working with Dr. Andy Breckenridge to prepare and analyze samples of ostracodes - minute fossils collected from lakes in eastern Canada that could offer clues to how the draining of a giant glacial lake thousands of years ago affected global climate change.

The project is providing Sellner with opportunities to do lab work, prepare samples, interpret the data, and prepare and present her information to other scientists.

"This will definitely prepare me for a science career, possibly working in a lab," she said. "In interpreting this data, I feel I may be able to do future research in this field."

'What it's really like to do science'

Breckenridge, an assistant professor of geology, stressed the importance of the experience Sellner is gaining because of the fellowship.

"This is the only way I know to show students what it's really like to do science," he said.

A key point to all the projects is that they are true research, not lab exercises. The students are asking questions to which no one knows the answers. The information they collect is a contribution to their field and, in some cases, helps other projects.

Working with scientists

Reed Schwarting, a biology major from Becker, Minn., is working with Paul Hlina, an associate researcher for UW-Superior's Lake Superior Research Institute, on a plant survey of inland wetlands in northwestern Wisconsin. Hlina is using an innovative sampling technique to survey the wetlands. Schwarting's work, using a conventional sampling method, will provide him with research experience while also serving as a quality control check for Hlina's project

For Schwarting, who's interested in a career in botany, the project is helping him gain knowledge of wetlands and honing his skills in plant identification.

"It definitely will help me when I apply for jobs," he said. "Learning and identifying plants is a dying skill, so it's good to have that ability. I'm also able to work independently, and work with a supervisor who has taught me organizational skills. It's prepared me with the background and logistical skills I need for doing research on my own."

Additional projects

Other students receiving fellowships, their supervising faculty members and their projects are:

  • Cole Holstrom and Matt TenEyck, Lake Superior Research Institute, working on "Water Chemistry Characteristics of the St. Louis River System."

  • Sarah Nabiddo and Dr. Ethan Christensen, business administration, working on "Eco-Tourism Marketing on Lake Superior's South Shore:  An Exploration of Destination Branding Strategies to Develop Competitive Advantages for Wisconsin's Eco-Tourism Experiences."

  • Kevin Jenkins and Dr. Eric Riker-Coleman, history, working on "Tribal Spearing in Northern Wisconsin:  A Historical and Cultural Perspective."

  • Matt Baer and Dr. Nick Danz and Dr. Mary Balcer, biology, working on "Mercury Bioaccumulation in Fish in the Duluth/Superior region."

Expects to see more opportunities

Vice Chancellor Hensrud said university leaders will consider ways to expand funding for the fellowship program so more students can benefit.

"We were very pleased with the high level of interest from students, faculty and staff from across the university," she said.

Jim Swenson is enthusiastic about the results of the program's first year, and expects to see more opportunities in the future.

"It's a great start for Superior and we'll continue to grow that (program) so more students get the opportunity," he said.

He encourages other university alumni to get involved in the program. "If you have an interest in helping students, this is a great way to do it," he said.

News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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