Hollins students in the sciences and beyond gained major research experience last summer, giving them a decided advantage in competing for coveted grad school slots.
By Jeff Hodges M.A.L.S. ’11
Alexandra “Alex” Lesniak ’20 has learned as an undergraduate to “not be afraid to ask for what you want.” That assurance served the psychology major well when she sought to grow her research skills in a lab at Virginia Tech.
“When she got there they said, ‘We see you have experience doing social media, so that’s what we’d like you to do,’” recalled Tiffany Pempek, associate professor and chair of psychology at Hollins. “That’s not what Alex had in mind. She let them know she had been running studies in our department’s Child Development Laboratory for the past three years.”
Lesniak investigated at what age toddlers can actually learn from screen media, and if adding parental reading tips to children’s books enhanced parent-child interactions.
“They decided to let her work with their study participants,” Pempek said, “something their undergraduates don’t get to do in a big research lab.”
The defining element Lesniak and other Hollins students share, one that fuels their confidence and gives them a leg up over their peers at other institutions, is the chance to engage in research beyond the academic year during the summer. As Catherine “Cat” Stricklin ’20, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration and a physics minor, noted, “I’ve been able to dedicate myself fully to my project, which many students don’t get the opportunity to do.” That continuity has been crucial for Stricklin, who is in her fourth year of using nuclear magnetic resonance, “essentially a big MRI for molecules,” to synthesize different chemical compounds and study their symmetrical properties. “Working on a single project for four years is something most undergraduates haven’t done by the time they’re applying for master’s or doctoral programs,” she explained. “It has shown me how persistence can pay off despite the complications that happen. It lets you think through and solve the problems you’re facing to get the desired results.”
Madison “Madi” Simms ’20, a biology and environmental science double major, also lauds the free time that summer offers for field study. She and her research partner, Bronte Hoefer ’21, are exploring the devastating impact in Roanoke County of the emerald ash borer, a small beetle that has killed tens of millions of ash trees in North America.
Simms said her summer research is not only convenient, it also provides “a way to mesh my passion for environmental science and ecology with veterinary science.” She was able to split her time last summer working for an emergency veterinary practice.
Hoefer, who is majoring in environmental science and biology, cited necessity as another compelling reason for summer research. In the fall and winter, “ash trees lose all of their leaves and it’s harder to score and identify them,” she noted. “During the springtime, adult ash beetles emerge from their pupa form. They begin to eat the ash leaves from the top of the tree, which results in defoliation, another sign of infestation that we can report.”
Assistant Professor of Biology Elizabeth Gleim ’06 invited Hoefer to study the emerald ash borer after the junior’s interest in plant and insect ecology was sparked by Gleim’s plant biology course. “The class lab involved going out into the woods and learning how to identify about a hundred species,” Hoefer said. “I found it very rewarding.” Now she plans to study ecological etymology in graduate school. “I’m really interested in how plants interact with insects, and vice versa, and the resulting impact on the environment.”
According to psychology major Marie Hengelhaupt ’21, research is an important component of clinical psychology, the field she hopes to pursue. Last summer, she partnered with Professor of Psychology Bonnie Bowers to replicate a study that was previously done with a Burmese python. “We taught a corn snake to press a button in order to get food,” she explained. “They’re active foragers and have the ability to adapt to different environments. Typically, they’re calm and they have to solve problems to find food. That makes them good for studying.”
Hengelhaupt hopes the study will help dispel the stereotype of reptiles as slow and dull, and through food retrieval show they are able to learn the same as mice and other animals. Since there has been little previous research in this area, she is also anticipating that this study will offer prospects for networking. “I plan to present our results at state and national conferences, which will enable me to meet people in my chosen field.”
Summer research opportunities at Hollins extend beyond the sciences. Kathleen “Kate” Lydon ’21, who is majoring in studio art with a concentration in printmaking, spent last summer honing her skills using a Glowforge Pro, a powerful laser cutter and engraver and one of the newest pieces of equipment in the university’s printmaking studio. “I learned new technologies and software. It’s really a melding of digital and traditional methods, which is huge in the printmaking field,” she said. “I believe it’s opened a lot of doors for me going forward with internships or graduate programs.”
Lydon divided her time working on her own and collaborating with Elizabeth Dulemba, a visiting associate professor in Hollins’ M.F.A. program in children’s book writing and illustrating. “I definitely want to be the conduit for everyone else on campus to learn this equipment. At the same time, I have a whole list of projects that I want to complete and I’m hoping to enter some juried exhibitions.”
Lesniak likely speaks for all her fellow summer researchers when she describes her work as “life changing. I would not be the person I am today without this experience. It has reaffirmed my love and desire to go into research. I am currently applying to some clinical psychology Ph.D. programs, and if you don’t have that undergraduate research experience, it really does set you at a disadvantage.”
“At Hollins, this is what we do,” said Pempek. “It’s a very clear demonstration of the value of a Hollins education.”
Jeff Hodges is director of public relations.