6/09/2011 Libby Sternberg

Singing the Praises of Student Research

F&M students thrive as research colleagues and co-authors

  • Assistant Professor Sylvia Alajaji and Stacy Huang ’11 Assistant Professor Sylvia Alajaji and Stacy Huang ’11


To Westerners, East Asian music can conjure up all that is perceived as “exotic” about the East. Its modal sounds, quartertones and unfamiliar dissonances provide few points of reference for Western ears used to the angularity and key structures of classical and pop music.



But for south China native Rujing (Stacy) Huang ’11, East Asian music is not only familiar, it is part of her field of study, one that led her to a national conference last year to present her research findings.

Her story is typical of F&M students who take advantage of the College’s research opportunities, which provide intellectually enriching experiences as well as résumé-enhancing activities. Often, by the time they complete their projects, these students are operating at the level of colleagues to their faculty advisers.

Huang, a joint music and business, organizations and society major, devoted spring and summer 2010 to looking at a subgenre of Asian music that resulted in a  paper—“When Tradition Meets Modernity: Aboriginal Musics in Taipei”—and attendance and presentations at major ethnomusicology conferences.

Her topic was aboriginal Taiwanese music in the city of Taipei. She studied what happened to the music of aboriginal peoples of Taiwan when they migrated to the city.

“People of aboriginal descent were using music to negotiate between their multiple identities: rural and urban, traditional and modern,” says Sylvia Alajaji of Huang’s work. “It helped make the transition [to urban life] easier.” Alajaji, assistant professor of music, acted as an intellectual guide as Huang prepared to delve into her subject and as she wrote up her findings.

“Dr. Alajaji was a wonderful mentor for me,” Huang says. “I only took one class with her, but she was the one who introduced this field to me. She opened me up to this whole new world.”

The world is that of ethnomusicology, the study of music and music-making in their social, political and cultural contexts. The aboriginal music Huang studied has a distinctive sound.Mostly a cappella vocal music that relies heavily on five-note scales, it might remind Westerners of Native American chants with cadences in open octaves and fifths.

When its music-makers migrate to a city where Western styles dominate, the aboriginal approach becomes blended with the tonalities of the West, much the same way that other cultural traditions melt into the urban way of life. Huang found this particularly true of Kimbo Hu, Taiwan’s music legend of aboriginal descent, whose command of both vernacular and Western musics has led to a distinct, nostalgic sound popularly known as “ocean blues.”

Huang conducted her research during a semester abroad in Taipei, but it was her work with Alajaji that helped her crystallize her pursuits into a paper that won her recognition and opportunities.

Alajaji also helped Huang focus on what questions to ask and how to properly research her subject.

“When she came back from Taiwan, she had a great paper, a foundation to work on,” Alajaji says. “We synthesized her work into case studies. We formulated her argument. Her groundwork was really impressive for an undergraduate.”

So impressive that Alajaji suggested Huang accompany her to the annual Society for Ethnomusicology conference last  November. Huang jumped at the opportunity and was able to network with scholars, handling the conference with “grace and enthusiasm,” Alajaji says.

It was the first of several opportunities for Huang to share her work. After the national conference, at which she was a volunteer, Huang presented her paper at the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Ethnomusicology meeting, held in Pittsburgh this year, even though it was primarily a graduate-student gathering.

Then, Princeton University invited Huang to the Asian Popular Music Conference, where she was the only undergraduate  student presenting a paper among a sea of scholars.

Alajaji helped prepare Huang for this milieu. “When we have a dialogue about work, it is as if I am talking to a colleague, not a student,” says Alajaji.

A classically trained pianist, Huang credits Alajaji for helping her see “there is no limit” to her field. But Alajaji, too, has  benefited from the collaboration, learning with her students as they approach research projects.

“When I was interviewing for teaching positions, one of the big, big positives here were the student research opportunities,” she says. “What happily surprised me was that students have an interest in this particular area of research.”

Huang, who graduated in May, will enter Harvard’s ethno-musicology Ph.D. program this fall.

What Prompts Goodness?

  • Eranda Jayawickreme ’05 was the Williamson medalist. Eranda Jayawickreme ’05 was the Williamson medalist.


Huang found great satisfaction in her aboriginal music research, but for Eranda Jayawickreme ’05, virtue is its own reward. Or, rather, it is the topic he explored in a paper co-published with Tony Chemero, F&M’s associate professor of psychology and scientific and philosophical studies of mind.

The topic was not quite virtue, but how certain behaviors that might be described as virtuous are drawn out by environment and opportunity.

As a student at F&M, Jayawickreme approached Chemero about the dicey problem of looking at values within the value-free context of science. Chemero was able to point him to a branch of the field—ecological psychology—in which Chemero was  working.

The conversation grew from just talk to collaborative research on the topic of morally relevant situations. “We applied the idea of ‘affordances’—opportunities for action—to moral behavior,” Chemero says.

For example, if someone drops something, what motivates a bystander to help pick up the dropped items? Chemero and Jayawickreme explored the variables in that and similar scenarios to determine what affordances sparked what would be considered virtuous behavior.

As Jayawickreme explains it, “Say your family calls you brave, but you might not have the opportunity to show your bravery. But you’re walking by a pond one day and see a person drowning. Now you can exhibit your bravery.” That application of virtuous behavior is what they studied.

“The idea is not only what predicts behavior, but how personality traits and situations interact to draw it out,” Jayawickreme says.

It is a fascinating topic, but equally fascinating to Chemero is how students freely approach professors at F&M to talk about such subjects.

“I’m not a retiring person,” he says good-naturedly, “but I never would have gone to talk to my teachers as an undergraduate  [about research]. Here, students just drop by.”

  • Associate Professor Tony Chemero has recruited several students to conduct research with him. Associate Professor Tony Chemero has recruited several students to conduct research with him.


Chemero recruits students for research if he sees an opportunity that might match their skills and interest. Such was the case recently when he identified Lin Nie ’10, a math major interested in the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He drew her into a project that uses Heidegger’s philosophy in artificial intelligence.

Chemero is not sure if F&M students realize the breadth of the opportunities available to them when they come to campus, but  he chalks that up to the newness of the overall college experience. “Students definitely hear about it, but you don’t really know what it’s like until you get into it.”

With Jayawickreme, “getting into it” meant publishing a paper with Chemero in the Review of General Psychology in 2008 on the topic of moral affordances.

A Sri Lankan native, Jayawickreme is now a postdoctoral fellow at Wake Forest University after receiving his Ph.D. in positive and political psychology from the University of Pennsylvania last year. At his F&M graduation, he was awarded the Henry S. Williamson Medal as the outstanding senior. He has received numerous grants.

He currently participates in The Character Project, a program co-sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation that explores character traits such as honesty and compassion and what precisely should be the centerpiece of an ethical theory.

Jayawickreme landed on the F&M campus because he knew fellow countrymen who had come to the College and had wonderful things to say about it. He quickly discovered the opportunities for interaction with faculty members for collaborative projects, and all three summers he was a Hackman fellow (see sidebar).

“I didn’t realize how spoiled I became with these opportunities until I left F&M,” he says. “Compared to a lot of other schools, F&M puts a lot of resources into student research.”

A Job Turns into a Paper

  • Caitlin Carney ’08 was surprised to learn many of her medical school friends had not conducted research as undergraduates. Caitlin Carney ’08 was surprised to learn many of her medical school friends had not conducted research as undergraduates.


Caitlin Carney ’08 was not looking for a research project when she approached Jennifer Morford, associate professor of  chemistry, about working in her lab one summer. She was just looking for a job to supplement her cash flow.

Holding down a variety of part-time positions, including bell ringer, to help finance her education, Carney asked Morford about jobs at the end of her first year, thinking she could fit in maybe five hours of clerical work a week, supplementing her other positions. Carney was happy when Morford said she would look into it.

But when Morford contacted Carney, it was to offer her a research position, not clerical work. By the time Carney was finished with her project, she was writing, not filing, papers on the analysis of trace metals in marine environments.

“Caitlin’s first project was to compare two methods of analysis for several metals in marine sediments,” Morford says. “Her comparisons were critical for finding the most accurate and precise method of analysis to determine these metal  concentrations.”

This research was no small thing. Morford’s own area of expertise, analytical environmental chemistry, requires accuracy and precision in measurements. Carney helped lay the groundwork for accurate data gathering in an important field.

As a result of that painstaking work, Carney was able to present her research results at the Intercollegiate Student Chemists Convention in 2006. Ultimately, her work was included in three publications.

  • Professor Jennifer Morford chose F&M in part because of the student-faculty collaborative opportunities. Professor Jennifer Morford chose F&M in part because of the student-faculty collaborative opportunities.


She went on to tackle another project, looking at interactions between one metal, molybdenum, and various simple organic  molecules as proxies for more complex organic material. She presented her findings at the Spring 2007 American Chemical Society meeting in Chicago, the Spring 2008 American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans (where she was awarded a Top Undergraduate Poster Award from the Geochemistry Division) and the 2008 Environmental Chemistry Student Symposium at Pennsylvania State University (where she and Kelly Murphy ’09 were the only two undergraduates presenting alongside graduate students).

“A lot of my friends in medical school did not have those kinds of opportunities,” says Carney, now a student at Pennsylvania State University’s Hershey Medical School.

It was happenstance that Carney took advantage of the research opportunities early in her undergraduate education. Although she remembers being told of F&M’s commitment to independent research, she had wrongly assumed it was for juniors and  seniors. But faculty members such as Morford enjoy working with first- and second-year students. “I want them early so they can mine the depths of what’s going on over time, something you can’t do if you do research for just one summer or one semester.”

“Mining the depths” of a particular field was precisely how Carney, a neuroscience major, felt as she delved into her various projects.

“I probably learned more from research than from two full years of classes,” she says. “I certainly learned a lot from my classes, but having the independence and freedom to do your own work, to go to your professors to talk about the work—it was  multifaceted. For example, I took a statistics class, but I learned so much in research about statistics. The research made me a better student, not just in chemistry, but in all my classes.”

Morford is happy when research opens doors for students, but she is overjoyed when it opens their minds: “I hope they get out of it an inquiring mind.”

Supporting Students Who "Amaze Themselves"

Franklin & Marshall has a strong commitment to student-faculty research projects, ranging from complex science experiments to social science explorations and humanities and arts projects. Many of these projects have resulted in papers co-authored by students and faculty members. From July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2010, 214 students combined to co-author 113 papers.

That collaboration is driven by a thriving summer research program. Specific funds for summer research programs are made available through the Hackman Scholars program, which was established in 1984 through an endowment by the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman. It encourages faculty members to develop projects in all academic divisions of the College that will involve students as research colleagues.

  • The College holds a Student Research Fair each semester at which students present and talk about their projects. The College holds a Student Research Fair each semester at which students present and talk about their projects.


The Hackman program is accompanied by other endowments, including the Eyler fund for student summer stipends to support student-faculty research in biochemistry, biology or chemistry; and the Rockhold fund for student summer stipends for economic research in developing countries. In addition, the College has grants funded through foundations and corporations that support summer research for students.

During summer 2010, 67 students received more than $230,605 of institutional support from the Hackman, as well as the grant-funded Decision Theory, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Mellon Environmental Studies awards. During the 2009–10 academic year, an additional 52 student-research projects received $54,446 in support from the Leser, Nissley and Marshall funds.

While other liberal arts institutions make similar commitments to student-faculty collaboration, Provost Ann Steiner says F&M has made some key investments that especially facilitate such collaborations.

“Our introductory courses are very small, usually no more than 25 students. And in the natural sciences, our tenured and tenure-track faculty members, not instructors, teach labs,” she says. “This means that students and faculty get to know one another the moment students walk in the door.”

It would be far less resource intensive to crowd introductory courses with students. F&M’s approach, using professors for these courses and keeping enrollments small, represents a huge commitment to facilitating close interaction between students and faculty.

This investment pays off as students come to know professors quickly, leading to the kind of welcome familiarity that lets underclassmen feel comfortable approaching professors to bat around ideas, often the first step in determining whether a research project is worth pursuing.

The value of these projects is immeasurable. As students learn how to investigate a question systematically, they learn that “creating new knowledge is not capricious,” Steiner says. “There is a method to investigating the construction of what we know and to push the boundaries into the unknown.”

Steiner often hears students say, “I never imagined doing something like this,” a simple statement on the surface, but one that underscores the immense intellectual leap students take as they explore research projects. “They surprise and amaze themselves,” Steiner says. “They are making genuine contributions to solving problems and answering questions, and they help to change the way we understand the world.”

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