Research Opportunities Offer a View to Post-graduation Possibilities
by Suzy Frisch | Winter 2011
When Veronica Deenanath applies to graduate school, she should have a leg up on the competition. Not only did she play a major role in a faculty research project, she also earned a spot as lead author of a journal article to be submitted for publication—quite an accomplishment for an undergraduate.
McNair Scholar Veronica Deenanath and family social science professor Zha Blong Xiong evaluate photos taken by youth of Hmong descent to document their homes.
Deenanath, who will graduate this spring with degrees in family social science and psychology, worked on a photovoice project with Zha Blong Xiong, an associate professor of family social science. Photovoice is a methodology that combines photography with grassroots social action. Xiong aimed to capture Hmong pre-adolescents’ views of their families by having them document their home life through pictures.
A native of Guyana who completed high school in Minneapolis, Deenanath participated in the photovoice project as a McNair Scholar. McNair is a federally funded TRiO program that aims to prepare promising low-income and first-generation college students for graduate school. McNair Scholars conduct summer research with a university faculty member, earn a stipend, and receive guidance on preparing and applying for graduate school.
Deenanath contributed significantly to the photovoice project by creating research questions, analyzing data, and working closely with students from Hmong Open Partnerships in Education Community Academy, a St. Paul pre-K–8 charter school. Xiong says that her experience should be enormously useful during graduate school, adding, “She’s a very smart young lady, and she has a lot of ideas about family studies and how family scholarship can contribute back to the community.”
This year Deenanath is garnering more expertise by serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant for one of Xiong’s courses and assisting graduate student Dung Mao with research for his master’s thesis on parental beliefs in the Hmong community. She applied for an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) grant to fund this work—another support for University undergraduates who pursue research.
Deenanath plans to continue similar scholarship and pursue a Ph.D. in family social science, and she hopes her hard work as an undergraduate will pay off.
“More doors open when you work closely on research with a faculty member,” she says.
Access to research opportunities—whether through McNair Scholars, the University Honors Program, UROP, or other avenues—prepares undergraduates for graduate school or careers and demonstrates the value of studying at a major research university. Currently more than 100 undergraduates in the college pursue research, either leading their own projects or working with faculty. CEHD and the University are working to open students’ minds and opportunities to post-baccalaureate learning and help them succeed once they get there.
The University Honors Program offers undergraduates an enriched, interdisciplinary higher education experience. Freshmen and sophomores complete four honors experiences each year, while juniors and seniors participate in three annually. These honors experiences can be fulfilled with a mix of coursework and experiential learning, including faculty-directed research, study abroad, internships, and community service.
Students also complete an honors thesis, in which they collect and analyze data for an academic paper. “It’s like a mini-graduate school paper, and they have to defend it,” says Rebecca Dosch Brown, an academic adviser and liaison between the college and the University Honors Program “It’s an opportunity to learn from the process of meeting with faculty, discussing their work, and getting critiqued.”
Junior Jordan Langen looks forward to starting his honors thesis next year. The kinesiology major with a minor in Asian languages and literatures is thinking about studying the biomechanics of the foot during running. When he starts the project next year, he already will be armed with numerous useful experiences.
For the past two summers Langen traveled to Japan, where he variously assisted with research in motion sickness at Kyushu University, staffed an outdoors-themed youth camp, and taught English near Tokyo in an American-style summer camp. Langen says he learned the most from serving as a subject and assistant in the Kyushu lab and observing how the professor set controls for the experiment—an experience counted among his honors requirements.
Langen is assisting various kinesiology labs for an honors seminar, and he is delving into learning about the research process and paper writing. A three-sport high school athlete from Crystal and a current marathon runner, Langen’s fascination with the human body led him to kinesiology. After graduating in 2012, Langen aims to teach English and coach youth sports in Japan before applying to graduate school for physical therapy.
Langen has enjoyed CEHD and the Honors Program, especially the more-demanding honors classes and being able to contract with professors to make regular classes into honors. For a marathon training course he contracted, Langen helped the doctoral teaching assistant with research on runners.
“Being in the honors program and doing research gives me the opportunity to explore my curiosity for subjects that I’m interested in,” he says. “It’s really important for learning problem-solving, keeping an open mind, and coming up with new ideas.”
Even when students aren’t planning to pursue graduate education, researching topics as an undergraduate can be valuable. Jessica Benson, an elementary education honors student, will graduate in May and plans to teach first or second grade in an urban school district. For her thesis Benson will focus on differentiation and adjusting teaching methods for special education students.
“I want to know how I can be a better teacher when I go out into the field and understand how students learn, whether they are in a general classroom or a student with disabilities,” she says. “Differentiation can help create a classroom where students might have different goals and different ways of achieving them, but there is a community where the kids are all working together and involved in the classroom.”
McNair Scholar Bai Vue is seeking to better understand the workplace. He worked this summer with Louis Quast, associate chair of the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development, as they investigated why once-promising managers “derail” and stop progressing as strong leaders. The team compared managers in the United States with those in China, Japan, India, South Korea, and Thailand, using a large database of 360-degree feedback results.
Associate professor Lou Quast saw his research partner Bai Vue develop confidence and a grasp of graduate school possibilities. Vue went on to present at a national McNair conference.
Vue, who will graduate this spring with a degree in human resource development, says he gained deeper insight into how researchers approach projects and execute their ideas at a top-tier research university. In addition to being named a co-author on a research article, Vue honed his public speaking skills through poster presentations locally and at the selective National McNair Research Conference, held in November.
He has continued working with Quast on an extension of the managerial derailment project, earning one credit of applied research in the process. Vue expects his undergraduate research experiences to help him thrive in graduate school, where he intends to pursue a doctorate in human resources or educational psychology.
“There is always a period of transition when you start something new, and I think starting research early is a really good way to transition into graduate school,” says Vue, who grew up in Minneapolis. “Having that mindset and experiencing what I might do in graduate school will really help in my success.”
During the course of the project, Quast saw a shy but eager student gain confidence as Vue tackled the literature review and helped write sections of a journal article about the study. Vue recently won a Sue W. Hancock Undergraduate Scholarly Excellence in Equity and Diversity (SEED)s of Change Award from the University’s Office for Equity & Diversity, and he has been awarded a UROP grant to continue his research in the spring.
Not only did Vue learn the research process by working with Quast’s team, he also realized that graduate school is a real possibility. “He knew it was a next step, but he had no personal sense of what that would mean for him,” says Quast. “This project gave him the knowledge that he can fit into this environment and do the work. That is a tremendous advantage for an undergraduate. Plus the experience he has built up and the work he has done will add to the credibility of his application to any institution.”