By Robert W. Dalton
To Dr. Natalie Grinnell, working on a research project is a huge milestone in the life of an undergraduate student.
“It’s the moment where a student transforms from just absorbing knowledge to helping create knowledge,” says Grinnell, Reeves Family Professor in Humanities. “You get to add your voice when you participate in research and create something. That, to me, is at the heart of what it can mean to be an academic.”
Over the summer, Grinnell directed a project on gender and fertility in contemporary werewolf literature. She was one of 21 members of the college faculty leading 38 Wofford students in undergraduate research focused on 19 different projects.
Dr. Ramón Galiñanes Jr., Wofford College’s director of undergraduate research and post-graduate fellowships, says he has seen a steady increase in student research opportunities and participation. That’s a trend Galiñanes wants to see continue. A robust undergraduate research program helps cement Wofford’s standing as one of the country’s top residential liberal arts colleges, he says.
“There is a tradition of undergraduate research at Wofford,” says Galiñanes, who over the summer led a project on news media production in Angola from 1989-2002. “We’re much more visible as a national liberal arts college, and in order to continue to have that recognition this is something we need to do. It’s critical to the liberal arts mission.”
Dr. Jennifer Bradham, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Studies, has spent the summer leading students performing a quantitative analysis of greenspace equity in Spartanburg County. Bradham says research is a priceless student experience that gives students an opportunity to work through the scientific process.
“Basically, it gives students a chance to work on problem-solving skills in a real-world application,” Bradham says. “Students also benefit from the exploration process of research. Throughout the project students learn what aspects of a field they like and don’t like, which helps shape their future career choices. Lastly, research gives students an opportunity to make a difference, at least in my field, and have a tangible, positive, real-world impact.”
Dr. Dave Pittman ‘94, a professor of psychology and coordinator of Wofford’s program in neuroscience, says research projects allow faculty to engage students and to teach them while building meaningful relationships. Pittman, who has been awarded a five-year, $400,755 grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct taste research in collaboration with the University of Southern California, says conducting research helps faculty stay abreast of changes in their chosen field.
“Most of the time the research project has something to do with the scientific interests of the faculty member, so the faculty member is advancing their own line of research as well,” he says. “Staying active in research keeps faculty current on the latest scientific developments and provides a means for interactions with colleagues at other institutions.”
Bradham and Pittman agree that offering a wide variety of research opportunities helps raise Wofford’s profile. Bradham says it’s an advantage for Wofford over larger schools that typically have higher student-teacher ratios.
“Producing publication-quality research is not only sought after by students, but it elevates the reputation of the college in the greater scientific community,” Pittman says.