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Caroline Newman and her ASPIRE mentor Associate Professor of English Elisabeth Oliver discuss the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, where Newman presented in May on "Personal Injury in Visigothic Law."
Photos: Eddy Perez/LSU Communications & University Relations

Faculty and Students ASPIRE to Excellence in Research

Recently, the LSU College of Arts & Sciences launched a new initiative that gives undergraduate students the opportunity to conduct meaningful research under faculty guidance. Interested students apply to the new Arts & Sciences Program in Research, or ASPIRE, and ASPIRE pairs each participating student with a faculty mentor who has expertise in the field of research in which the student is interested.

After completing the research project, the student submits the work to a regional or national academic conference. If it is accepted, ASPIRE provides funds to enable the student to travel and give their presentation. This enables the students to present their work to professionals in their field of study, a rare opportunity for undergraduates.

“Students have been very successful in getting their presentation accepted at national and international conferences. Some of the locations they’ve presented at include Minneapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, San Diego and Dublin, Ireland,” said Janet McDonald, associate dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and coordinator of the ASPIRE program. “Attending these conferences allows the students to present to an audience of academics in their field, learn about other research being done in the field and explore possible career and educational opportunities. In addition, it is a great way to show off to others the type of high quality research being done by students at LSU.”

The program targets arts and sciences students who have at least sophomore status. Students commit to work five to nine hours a week on the individualized research project under the supervision of the faculty mentor for independent study course credit. Commitment can be for a semester or a year, depending on the project.

In addition to being an excellent opportunity for students to apply the techniques and information they have studied in classes to a real world situation, the program provides experience for students who are interested in going on to graduate or professional school and are considering careers in research and development. Students who are successful in this program are encouraged to consider building on their work in a senior honors thesis.

In November, Christina Gary presented at the Annual American Speech-Language-Hearing Association's Conference in New Orleans.

The program started as a pilot with three students in 2008. By 2009, it had grown to 18 students, representing nine departments in arts and sciences. This broad swath of majors includes political science, psychology, communication studies, history, sociology, English, communication sciences and disorders, communication studies and foreign languages and literatures. The program has funding capacity for 20 students each year. Most of these students spend a year researching the professional literature, developing their research ideas, gathering data and formulating their results.

Students perform all their own work, learning as they do about scholarship in their chosen field and new techniques and ideas. At the conferences they attend, they make valuable professional connections with faculty, graduate students and practitioners who may remember them when they apply to graduate programs.

An added benefit to the program is that some of LSU’s brightest young scholars represent the university at these meetings. Because these students are applying to regional and national conferences – instead of those that are limited to only undergraduate participants – the quality of their work must meet a very high standard, and the students in ASPIRE have consistently risen to this challenge.

McDonald recalls that the program was the brainchild of former dean Guillermo Ferreyra. She is enthusiastic about the program’s successes, as there have already been several examples of students who have presented their work in the same sessions as seasoned professionals and who were mistaken for gifted graduate students.

One such example is Charlotte Gates, a psychology major who worked with Assistant Professor Alex Cohen in his research with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Gates presented her work in a poster session at the recent annual meeting of the Society for Research in Psychopathology.

At this conference, held in Minneapolis, Minn., Cohen was on hand during Gates’ presentation. Three of his peers, each from among the most prestigious psychology departments in the world, separately commented quite favorably on her performance. One of them commented, “Your graduate student’s project is really interesting, and she did a great job presenting it.” Cohen was amused and responded, “Yes, and she’s an undergraduate who will be on the market soon!”

ASPIRE also provided Caroline Newman, a double major in English and Spanish, with an opportunity to present during her sophomore year at the International Congress on Medieval Studies, one of the top conferences for those interested in medieval studies, featuring more than 3,000 scholars and 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops and performances. Newman presented on “Personal Injury in Visigothic Law” in May at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Another ASPIRE student majoring in political science, Philip de Mahy, had become fascinated with the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, a leading philosopher from Scotland. Expanding upon the thesis MacIntyre used in his essay, “Is Patriotism a Virtue?” and developing his own paper titled “From Patriotism to Pietas: Approaching the Problem of Loyalty in the Modern State,” de Mahy submitted his work and was accepted as a participant in a special conference on MacIntyre at the University College Dublin. At this conference, the International Society for Macintyrian Inquiry, de Mahy not only had the opportunity to present his paper to other political philosophers, he was able to meet MacIntyre and talk with him.

Other students have been to similar professional meetings with similar reactions from their audiences. Faculty who have worked with ASPIRE students, too, have been impressed with the quality of work that the students produce. These other ASPIRE students have done and are doing projects in such diverse topics as the films of Federico Fellini, nurses in World War II, Southern politics, the nature of mothers’ speech to infants with Down syndrome, postmodern apocalyptic literature and the effect of inquiry learning on retention of scientific material. Most of these have already been accepted for presentation at national conferences, and the others are making progress toward that objective.

Funding for the program is provided through a grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents. This two-year grant, which has been in place since spring 2009, continues until June 2011. Students who participate in the program are eligible for up to $1,000 to cover conference and travel expenses. Because students often perform better when they have mentor support while they are making their presentations, the grant also provides funds for the faculty mentors to accompany their students to conferences. Faculty mentors who attend meetings with their student also introduce the students to other professionals and help these students create valuable networks.

The college is actively working to find new sources of funding to continue the program at its current level once the Board of Regents grant ends. To this end, the college is exploring the idea of creating a fund for interested parties to donate to this program.

McDonald is eagerly planning a spring showcase of the students’ work, hoping to have them make their presentations before an audience of their LSU peers, faculty and administrators.

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Brenda Macon | LSU College of Arts & Sciences
December 2009