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Senior Wilson Fellows present final research

By ELLIE PENATI | April 24, 2014

Seniors in the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship program presented the culmination of four years of research Wednesday at the annual Woodrow Wilson Senior Poster Session.

The event, which was held in the Glass Pavilion, included an introduction by program director Steven David as well as speeches by four of the 18 senior fellows.

The Woodrow Wilson Undergraduate Research Fellowship program grants funding to a select group of Krieger School of Arts and Sciences undergraduates, allowing them to pursue independent research of their own choice. The selected students work closely with faculty members to conduct their own research throughout their student career.

In his speech, David said that the fellows have successfully defeated the stereotype that only graduate students can conduct significant independent research.

“You have demonstrated clearly that undergraduates can perform meaningful, substantive and groundbreaking research as well,” David said. “You have [also] defied another assumption; the assumption that research is simply the province of the natural sciences.”

David stressed that Woodrow Wilson Fellows demonstrate that powerful and groundbreaking research can be conducted in the non-science fields.

“It is clear that some of our best students and best projects are those of the natural sciences — and I by no means mean to diminish their accomplishments — but it’s also important to recognize that research goes on in social sciences and humanities,” David said.

The variety of the research at the event illustrated David’s point, as projects ranged from “Global Public Health Impact of Recovered Supplies from Operating Rooms: A Critical Analysis with National Implications” to “Defining Victimhood: An Ethnographic Exploration of Colombia’s Victim’s Law.” The students developed their ideas for their research projects independently.

Some of the fellows mentioned that they applied to the program merely with a hunger for research and developed their plans after being accepted into the program when inspired by their academic ventures.

Shanna Murray, a Cognitive Science and Romance Languages double major, said that the inspiration for her project came from lab work during her sophomore year, for which she did research on reading and spelling.

“A lot of the data I had actually collected before I was even [starting my] project,” Murray said. “We collected data from a deaf person, but no one had analyzed it before. I [thought,] ‘Hey, that could be really interesting, because the reading is different if you’re deaf [and] a lot of people use their knowledge of word sounds and map that knowledge onto letters.’”

Other students described how they entered the program with a fully developed interest and plan, using the Woodrow Wilson Program to provide the means for their research goals to come to fruition.

Molecular and Cellular Biology major Eric Lee Wan described how the program enabled him to prove how unused medical supplies that are currently being wasted can be donated to less developed countries, thus helping to reduce the spread of infectious diseases in areas that have limited access to medical supplies.

“I’ve used the Woodrow Wilson fellowship to basically travel to Ecuador and bring some medical supplies with me and prove that global surgery is an important aspect of public health,” Wan said. “When we think about global health, we think about AIDS and malaria and obesity, but surgical diseases represent around 11 percent of the global disease burden.”

Beyond the process of developing a research idea and plan, several students discussed difficulties they encountered throughout their experience. Anna Wherry, an Anthropology and Public Health Studies major, spoke about the difficulties she faced gaining access to politicized events and discussions in Colombia when conducting research for her project, “Defining Victimhood: An Ethnographic Exploration of Colombia’s Victims Law.”

“Probably the first obstacle was getting people to trust me,” Wherry said. “The very first contact I made was with this bureaucrat, and I wanted to attend these different participatory tables where all the victim organizations got together and talked about the victim’s law.”

Despite the difficulties that the fellows faced carrying out their research, students emphasized the personal value of their research. Psychology major Martha Harrison said that research became a valuable endeavor for the researcher and the community, especially if is rooted in a personal passion.

“This is a unique grant because you can study anything you want, and so you should,” Harrison said. “You should study something you’re truly passionate about because you don’t get that opportunity. You become a professional in a specific field, and you pursue things for an ulterior reason or professional purposes. This is for you. Do something you really love and care about and it will show and other people will care about it too.”

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