Student-faculty Research Collaborations Enhance the CC Experience
Ask a variety of current Colorado College students what they’ve learned most from working collaboratively with faculty on research projects and the common answer is patience. Patience is key, no matter the department or area of interest. It plays a role whether a student is digging through pages of historical literature, testing chemical compounds, or transcribing manuscripts into a digital format.
Of course, it’s just one of many skills students learn. And students aren’t the only ones growing through this process. As Jane Murphy, co-director of CC’s Summer Collaborative Research Program (SCoRe) and associate professor of history, said, the model of student-faculty collaboration is not just rewarding in the amount of work that can be completed toward a specific agenda, but it can facilitate new types of ideas and relationships.
“The beauty of the Block Plan is we’re all about each other, the 26 of us in a room, but what happens outside that in each other’s lives, I don’t think we see a lot of,” Murphy said, adding that research projects give students an opportunity to experience a professor’s day-to-day life outside of the classroom, and vice versa.
In the natural sciences, student-faculty collaboration at institutions of higher education has a long-standing history. Take, for instance, CC’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry: It’s not only a graduation requirement for majors to complete research with a professor, but it’s also an expectation for faculty to mentor students in this way. Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Amy Dounay ’96 explained that it’s just understood to be a part of what undergraduate training involves.
“This is where students learn the most. They get their book work and a little lab work in the classrooms, but those labs are usually set up for success. … It’s different for students to come in and do real research where you don’t really know what the outcome’s going to be. Where no one knows. I don’t have the answer hidden away in my answer key.”
Emma Krakoff ’16 is one of about a dozen students to have worked with Dounay since the professor arrived at CC three years ago. Krakoff and Dounay have collaborated on Dounay’s research directed toward identifying new medicines to treat African sleeping sickness, a disease that affects a fairly small number of people in Africa, but one that, more importantly, no big pharmaceutical companies are working on.
Krakoff came into the project at the very beginning, and Dounay set her on a path of searching the literature, figuring out what route might work, and then adapting that choice to their specific situation at the college and ordering the necessary chemicals. Making compounds came next. As Dounay said, “Dumping everything together and heating it up is easy. Fishing it out and figuring out what it is, is the hard part.”
Krakoff agreed. “I didn’t quite know if what I was doing was working.” But, she added, “It’s definitely given me exposure to research and what it’s like to go through a research project from start to finish. … Amy was very good about giving me balance. Helping me out but giving me the opportunity to be independent.”
“We have not discovered the cure-all yet,” Dounay said. “Normally for drug discovery you go through many, many cycles of this.” But her goal is that by next summer, “we still may not have the drug but hopefully we’re at least seeing some improvement and will be able to publish a nice paper within the next year or so.”
Trial and error
On both the humanistic social sciences and human-ities side of things, student-faculty collaborative research projects are a bit newer to the game.
“The [Andrew W.] Mellon Foundation has played a role in quite explicitly calling on the humanities and humanistic social sciences to engage, and the field has,” said Murphy, thanks in part to the New York-based foundation’s grant-awarding to institutions of higher education specifically in support of strengthening humanities and arts programs.
“We’re not deeply behind the curve, but we’re not far ahead … there’s definitely room to expand this program,” said Murphy.
And for her, that’s exciting. This past year she brought in her first student, Siena Faughnan ’16, to collaborate on research she’s been conducting about Islamic scholars of the rational sciences. Murphy’s process until then involved close readings, note cards, and then a simple Filemaker Pro data set. When the digital humanities grants came to her attention,she wondered if there was a way to integrate better software into what she was doing. She asked Faughnan, who was interested in applying computer science to history, to research possible options.
“[Jane] had compiled a data set from this collection of biographies of Islamic scholars and I was working on figuring out how we could use that with software in order to create a visual of it so that we could understand how all of these people were connected with each other and how tight-knit or loose-knit the community was and who were central figures in it,” said Faughnan. “It was a lot of trial and error. A lot of the time was spent looking into different software programs that deal with social network analysis and seeing how other people had done this kind of work. And then when we finally decided to use this specific program, I had to make sure that data was able to be entered in this program.”
It was, and according to Murphy, it generated some interesting initial findings. And even though it won’t replace the more close reading and critical work that’s central to historical analysis, it does add tools — a topic she’ll present a paper on to the Middle East Studies Association in Denver this fall, likely with Faughnan in attendance.
It’s also inspired a student in unexpected ways. “I want to hypothetically work in museums,” said Faughnan. “And it gives me a lot of ideas about how I could apply computer science to make museums more interactive and engaging, and a more visual experience for visitors or online guests.”
Fifth-year senior Connor Rice ’16 also combined digital technologies and humanities in his research collaboration with Assistant Professor of Music Ryan Bañagale ’00. Bañagale, who sits on the editorial board for University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative, has been creating a series of critical editions — scholarly musical scores — of the composer’s iconic “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Rice spent most of his summer hours going through digital images of the original manuscript housed in the Library of Congress, as he said, “note by note, line by line, page by page,” and entering more than 20,000 individual notes into the notation program Finale. As he did this, the music and computer science double major wondered if he could use his coding skills to increase efficiency.
He designed a very concise reference software program that allowed Bañagale to search for a certain measure in “Rhapsody in Blue,” pull up multiple digital images of that measure, and compare them at the same time on one screen. It was a definite improvement over opening individual image files and trying to figure out where he was in the score. Rice plans to further develop a stand-alone software option that other researchers can use in their work on additional editions for the Gershwin Initiative.
Bañagale has worked on research with a handful of students since he began in his role four years ago, perhaps driven by the fact that as a graduate of CC’s class of 2000, he himself benefited from a student- faculty research collaboration. Theatre Professor Tom Lindblade, who was Bañagale’s advisor at the time, helped him to secure some funding for a project focusing on creating new musical theater.
“I had never thought about creativity as being something you could study or think about or talk about in those ways. That project ended up being a part of my graduate admissions paper writing sample, which helped me get into grad school — and land me back here.”