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Students expand their research horizons through conferences

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Bethel College’s emphasis on undergraduate research can lead students in many directions, some of them geographical – this spring to New York, Colorado and Georgia.

Sophomores Amber Anderson, McPherson, and Miriam Weaverdyck, Ann Arbor, Mich., presented a poster at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research or NCUR, held this year at Ithaca (N.Y.) College, March 31-April 2.

The students’ poster explained research they had done using GEMS, a new method of measuring emotions elicited by music, to provide a more detailed validation for the music search engine Armonique.

Anderson is a psychology major while Weaverdyck is majoring in math and psychology. They first got together on the project as members of an honors section of General Psychology, taught by Dwight Krehbiel, professor of psychology, who also attended NCUR at Ithaca College.

NCUR is dedicated to promoting undergraduate research, scholarship and creative activity in all fields of study by sponsoring the annual conference for students that, unlike meetings of academic professional organizations, welcomes presenters from all institutions of higher learning and from all corners of the academic curriculum.

Weaverdyck says she was struck by the “huge range of research people can do, in fields I wouldn’t have thought of, like the humanities.

“It was interesting to sit in on talks and see the variety of research,” she continued. “We tend to get into a one-lane focus [in our own research].”

Anderson agreed, adding, “After attending NCUR, it’s apparent to me that students of every major can get involved researching any topic they could be interested in, while learning valuable skills they wouldn’t pick up elsewhere.

“Undergraduate research is not just reserved for those who want to become researchers,” she said. “Anyone can and would benefit from being a part of a research project, more so than most other extracurricular activities colleges offer, I would argue.”

Several other Bethel students did get to experience the more narrowly focused academic conference, traveling with Professor of Psychology Paul Lewis to the 13th International Congress on Schizophrenia Research, held April 2-6 in Colorado Springs.

Lewis and psychology majors Cassidy McFadden, junior from Elgin, Ill., and seniors Tim Burns, McAlester, Okla., and Sierra Pryce, Newton, were lead author or co-author of several posters presented at the conference.

Unlike at NCUR, at the schizophrenia congress these undergraduates were in a distinct minority. “There aren’t a lot of undergraduates who have chosen to study schizophrenia, or who know enough to be able to present at a conference like this,” said McFadden. “We’re lucky to have been members of a schizophrenia research group at Bethel for all three or four years, and to have access to relevant research.”

Schizophrenia is one of Lewis’ research interests and has been a major focus for both McFadden and Burns. For Pryce, whose senior research topic is autism and who only joined Bethel’s schizophrenia research group this year, the conference gave her a look at “all the different avenues you can choose with something as specific as schizophrenia.

“It seemed overwhelming at first but it was really interesting,” she added. “Mental health work is a main interest for me, and I realized that I can’t ever get ‘stuck’ – there are too many options.”

“For me, it was refreshing to be in a group this large where schizophrenia was the discussion topic instead of something I have to explain,” said McFadden, “to be in this academic setting devoted to a marginalized community.”

Pryce and McFadden also wanted to note that though this international congress had a steep registration fee, that was nearly covered for the three students by Bethel College’s Eldon and Margaret Rich Endowment, which helps with costs associated with travel in connection with conference attendance.

A third opportunity this spring was the annual Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectography, which is now called simply Pittcon and moves around the country. Bethel students are able to attend every other year thanks to a special fund set up by Bethel alumni Janet and Orvin Voth of Newton.

This year’s Pittcon – “the world’s largest annual conference and exposition for laboratory science” – was March 13-18 in Atlanta. Gary Histand, professor of chemistry, took seven Bethel students: juniors Trent Baalman, Wichita, John Goering, Valley Center, Trey Ronnebaum, Wichita, and Carrie Schulz, Newton, and sophomores Chris Riesen, Beatrice, Neb., Aaron Rudeen, Osage City, and Ben Suchsland, Agra.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2010-11 Forbes.com analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States and is in the first tier in its category in the U.S. News & World Report annual ranking of “America’s Top Colleges” for 2011. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see www.bethelks.edu.

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