Washington and Lee juniors Nicole Conkling, Paten Hughes, Rebecca LeMoine, Chun-Yi Sum, Lain Wilson and Tom Brower have been named the first recipients of the University's new Student Summer Independent Research (SSIR) grants.
Developed as a complement to W&L's established R.E. Lee Scholars program, which promotes research between students and faculty during the summer, the SSIR grants underwrite students on independent research and creative projects of their own, with faculty mentoring and supervision.
"The R.E. Lee Scholars program supports collaborative research--where students participate in and contribute to the research projects of their faculty mentors," said Hank Dobin, dean of the College at W&L. "That model works well in the sciences, but less well in the humanities and arts, where scholarly and creative projects tend to be solo efforts. Plus we wanted to encourage students who have developed their own interests and original projects by supporting their research during the summer before their senior year. We believe these opportunities will result in better and more satisfying honors thesis experiences."
The grants--up to $3100 each for four to ten weeks of work--cover travel and living expenses, as well as other costs associated with the recipients' projects. The program is funded by the College, the Williams School and the President's Office. In this initial pilot year, the SSIR grants were awarded to rising seniors intending to pursue honors theses next year. The recipients were chosen from a pool of applicants by members of the College Council, based on the strength and originality of their proposed projects and the need for financial assistance to fund travel and other research-related expenses.
Nicole Conkling, a studio art and biology major from Ossining, N.Y., is working on a sculptural thesis project which aims to explore the impact of extinction, blending the stylistic aspects of 20th century sculpture and the values of ecological art. She will spend the summer preparing for her thesis with research and field sketches.
"I will be traveling to modern art museums to look at sculpture from the past century, and I plan to research and interview individuals involved with the Eco-Art movement," said Conkling. "In order to prepare for my own sculpture pieces, I want to develop an understanding of the role of art in conservation. In addition, I will be going to zoos and parks to do field sketches of creatures and their habitats. With this research and fieldwork, I will be drafting sketches of my pieces so that I can be ready to build them in the fall."
Conkling hopes that her project will have a long-term impact on the W&L community. "I was excited to learn that I had been awarded the SSIR grant mainly because it meant that the University strongly supports my project, and that I am going to be presenting something that is meaningful on a worldwide scale to students and faculty here on campus," she said. "I hope that by bringing eco-art to the forefront at W&L, it will augment our local community's efforts for change."
Paten Hughes, a theater and French major from Richmond, Va., is working on an acting thesis for her performance as Desdemona in Shakespeare's Othello on campus next fall. A veteran of over ten theater productions at W&L, she will spend her summer teaching acting to underprivileged children in New York City for her Shepherd Poverty Program internship. She will use her grant to train with a well-known Shakespeare professor in the evenings.
"The SSIR grant allows me to really dig into my passion for acting, and Shakespeare in particular," said Hughes, who plans to pursue an acting career after graduation. "I'll be able to make connections with important people in the industry and develop my skills as a performer. I'm going to be working on a variety of different things--mastering the language, learning my lines, developing a character, vocal work and breath support, etc. But I'm most looking forward to just being immersed in Shakespeare."
Rebecca LeMoine, a politics and French major from Byhalia, Miss., will bridge comparative politics and political philosophy in her thesis, examining the role of popular culture, specifically music, in Senegal, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. She will use her grant to interview artists, producers and others in the African music industry in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"With low literacy rates compared to those of North America, citizens of these three African countries often struggle with political awareness," said LeMoine, who hopes to attend graduate school to become a politics professor. "Furthermore, their governments have strict control over media sources, such as newspapers, television stations and radio stations. Popular music, consequently, plays a significant role in disseminating political information to the public, and provides artists with an outlet through which they can more openly voice their criticisms of the government and society."
"Without the SSIR grant, I would be missing out on the vast resources that Brooklyn has to offer, from outstanding libraries to actual African concerts," LeMoine continued. "This is the kind of research that I hope to continue doing throughout the rest of my life, so I think this project is a great beginning point."
Chun-Yi Sum, a sociology and anthropology major from Hong Kong, will explore the cultural and social significance of tea restaurants ("Cha-Chaan Teng") in Hong Kong. She will spend 3 weeks in Lexington reading about food and identity before traveling to Hong Kong to conduct her research, visiting tea restaurants to look at patterns of interaction and documenting their settings and menus.
Sum hopes to attend graduate school in cultural anthropology after graduation. "While I have been doing quite a lot of cultural exchange tours, this will be my first time studying a specific niche in a place, and my first formal cultural study using anthropological methodology," she said. "I am sure it is going to be a rewarding summer for me, and what I am going to learn in this project will be useful for my future endeavors in the discipline."
Lain Wilson, a history and classics major from Lexington, Ky., will examine the Byzantine empire in the late tenth century, focusing on the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969), in his thesis. Currently studying at University College, Oxford, on W&L's Oxford Student Exchange program, Wilson will remain in Oxford to continue his research, and travel to Turkey to place it in context.
"So much of history is difficult to grasp without the cultural and geographic context, and I think that a visit to the eastern Mediterranean could really help to clarify, at least in some respects, the material I'll be dealing with next year," Wilson said. "I read a bit on Nikephoros while I was studying tenth and eleventh century European history here at University during the fall term, but everything about his life seemed to defy categorization: the bane of an historian," Wilson continued. "I look forward to trying to fit these elements together, if not into a comprehensive portrait, then at least into a more comprehensible framework. I can only hope that my efforts this summer lead to a product worthy of the grant itself."
Tom Brower, a politics major from Syracuse, N.Y., is writing his thesis on the role of the state in economic reform, focusing on the experiences of Ghana and Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s. He will use his grant to travel to New York and Washington, conducting primary and secondary research with major institutional players involved in international development and economic reform policies.
Brower is enthusiastic about both the opportunities that the SSIR grant provides and the implications of the program for W&L students concerned about life after graduation. "I'm definitely looking forward to experiencing what field research is actually like," he said. "Field research is something that will probably be an integral part of my master's thesis and/or doctoral dissertation, so it's good that I'll be able to see if this is something I would want to do with my life."
"The SSIR program reinforces W&L's emphasis on undergraduate education, but at the same time understands that looking towards students' future academic/professional plans is part of their plan," Brower continued. "This kind of grant is just what W&L needed."