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Undergraduate Ink

UVM's research environment lets students publish — and cherish

By Jeff Wakefield Article published March 16, 2005

Student Geologists
Three and a crowd: Undergraduates (left to right) Jehanna Howe, Elizabeth Stanley-Mann and Michala Peabody pose with their poster (and now scientific paper) that created a stir at a scientific meeting. (Photo: Bill DiLillo)

The large horizontal poster is push-pinned unceremoniously to a wall in Delehanty Hall, frameless, slightly off-kilter, a ripple bisecting its four color panels.

It’s a matter-of-fact presentation of a decidedly un-matter-of-fact piece of student work.

Created by seniors Jehanna Howe, Elizabeth Stanley-Mann and Michala Peabody, the poster — which uses a series of historic and contemporary photos to trace the effect of human actions on Vermont’s “surficial” geology — was exhibited at the Geological Society of America annual meeting last November in Denver. It prompted such buzz among professional geologists that geology Professor Paul Bierman, the students’ advisor, decided to help prepare the poster’s contents for submission to the society’s professional journal, GSA Today. A paper bearing the students’ names, along with Bierman’s, will appear as the cover article in the April/May issue of the prestigious journal.

The poster and publication are high points for Bierman, who has mentored many undergraduates during his 12-year tenure at UVM, as well as for the students.

“It sends shivers up my spine,” he says.

Small is bountiful
The poster, including its casual presentation (just outside Bierman’s office, where he can show it off easily, he says), is a window on the world of undergraduate research at UVM, where student-faculty collaboration in the lab is commonplace, and scholarly papers co-authored by undergraduates are relatively frequent.

A recent unscientific survey revealed that scores of UVM students have co-authored papers with their professors, 40 with three biology faculty alone. Students in engineering, education, and natural resources, among other units, have also co-authored publications with faculty. In just one recent example, eight students co-published a paper with Gund Institute of Ecological Economics Director Robert Costanza in the December issue of Ecological Economics. The paper grew out of a class Costanza taught last spring.

UVM’s hybrid teaching and research environment, which makes the university fertile ground for undergraduate research, is what drew Bierman to Burlington. “I wanted a chance to mentor undergraduates,” he says, but in a research-intensive environment like that of his former employer, the University of Washington.

“It’s what’s special about UVM for students,” he says. “We have serious grant-making capability, because we’re a research institution, but undergraduates also have the opportunity to be mentored by professors” who are senior scientists because of the university’s relatively small size.

“What we offer students are the research labs of a very active, well-funded faculty,” says biology chair Judith Van Houten. Students, she adds, “have access to state-of-the-art equipment and a faculty mentor, as graduate students might at other institutions.”

Undergraduates also benefit from research faculty who look out for them when they apply for competitive grants, says Van Houten.

The National Science Foundation, for example, provides supplementary funds for undergraduates through its Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which many UVM faculty have taken advantage of. Through REU, NSF provides stipends for undergrads to assist the scientists it funds, an activity the foundation has discovered makes it more likely that students will pursue graduate degrees and careers in science.

Undergraduate research at UVM is also funded by an alphabet soup of university programs, including HELiX in the life sciences, URECA across all disciplines, and APLE in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as by a federal program new to UVM that sponsors first-generation undergraduates, the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program.

Scanning the environment
Howe, Stanley-Mann, and Peabody all received REU grants to pursue their poster research, which was largely undertaken last summer and fall. During the summer the three scanned photos, a tedious process, wrote descriptions of the images with appropriate key words to aid searches, uploaded them to an online photo archives, and re-photographed scenes depicted in older photos to show how landscapes have changed over time.

The work is part of an ongoing project Bierman is spearheading called the Landscape Change Program, an online photo archives that currently boasts 10,000 searchable images of Vermont over a 200-year period.

After scanning and uploading, it was on to the research. All three students came to their conclusions by searching the photo archives and comparing images over time. Howe demonstrated that "riparian zones" of vegetation alongside rivers have rejunenated themselves in recent years, curtailing stream-bank erosion; Stanley-Mann showed how impacts of the 1927 flood that devastated Montpelier and environs have ameliorated over time; and Peabody demonstrated the causal connection between clear-cutting, road building, and other forms of development, on the one hand, and landslides and other erosion on the other.

After finishing their research, the three students completed the poster during a multi-day sleepless whirl. Before they knew it, the three students were a center of attention at the NGS poster session in Denver, engaging in long conversation with some of their field’s most eminent figures.

“It was nerve-wracking at first, talking to all these highly important geologists,” says Peabody. “But it got to the point where we had our presentation down so well” — a graduate student observing the three calculated they gave their spiels about 1,000 times during the day — “we could go through it in about two minutes.”

”It was a great experience,” Peabody says, especially since the Worcester native is interested in graduate school. She says she now has “several big names” to follow up with.

That’s part of the point, Bierman says. A major benefit offered by the undergraduate research experience, he believes, is that close proximity to students enables faculty “to really model what being a scientist is. (Students) see the boring stuff and the exciting stuff. When they get to know a scientist in the lab or at a meeting, they start to realize that they’re people, too. They could be one of these scientists.”