What We Talk About When We Talk About Research

students doing research

An exploration of the countless and endlessly surprising forms of research that exist at Dickinson

by Tony Moore

You’re drinking a cup of coffee under an umbrella on Britton Plaza one day, and some excited chatter floats through the air in your direction: Two students are discussing a serious semesterlong research project they recently polished off.

Now mentally put yourself with them over that semester. What have they been doing for those three months in the academic trenches?

Studying how parthenolide affects leukemic stem cells in a lab? Interviewing patients in a local clinic about their tobacco consumption? How about researching reconstruction teams in Iraq and Afghanistan as a summer intern for the U.S. Army War College? Parsing the ways Rush Limbaugh’s practice of “concept doubling” affects his listeners? Or maybe exploring personal identities and modes of expression through mixed-media artworks?

At Dickinson, it’s been all of the above, and that’s not even the first inch of the tip of the college’s research iceberg. Because the liberal arts and sciences at Dickinson create a rich academic landscape, and countless and endlessly surprising forms of research exist in every classroom, every academic major, every intellectual discipline.

It's in our DNA

“Scholarship is part of the DNA of our faculty at Dickinson, as it informs, infuses and influences much of what each faculty member does in their teaching, research and service roles,” says John Henson, senior associate provost of academic affairs and Charles A. Dana Professor of Biology. “I think that many of us came to Dickinson because it was a place where a true balance could be struck between high-quality research and teaching—and that these were seen as two sides of the same coin, as opposed to being in conflict with one another.”

And in fact, you’ll find that taking a balanced approach between classroom learning and research endeavors is the standard across campus.

Take, for instance, the humanities

“Research isn’t just about getting a grade; it’s about shaping the way you’re putting together a packet of information and then expressing and communicating it to an audience,” says Associate Professor of East Asian Studies Shawn Bender, who recently took a group of students into the Carlisle community and to Japan to study quality-of-life issues among the elderly. “Students haven’t just read someone else’s thoughts and spit them out on an exam. They’ve been involved in that process of data collection—they’ve seen all of the ugly, beautiful, messy aspects of that—and there’s a different level of investment.”

The liberal-arts environment champions a multidisciplinary approach to inquiry.

Patricia Kotrady ’16 (American studies) teaches eighth- grade social studies to gifted and talented students in Northern Virginia. At Dickinson, her senior thesis was an ethnographic research project on punk rock subcultures, cultural capital and authenticity in the Philadelphia DIY music scene. Now, the methods she employed are finding their way into her own classroom. “The liberal-arts approach encourages students to consider perspectives from multiple fields of study while conducting research,” Kotrady says. “This allows for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of concepts, and every day I use the education I received at Dickinson to reach my students.”

student research group


Kotrady studied with Associate Professor of American Studies Cotten Seiler, and as Kotrady’s project on the Philadelphia punk music scene illustrates so well, research in the humanities is defined by a dynamic, ever-evolving spirit. “People may think of the liberal arts as unchanging, but new knowledge is being produced all the time,” says Seiler, noting that scholars in the humanities and social sciences continually develop new interpretations of everything from literary texts to works of art to political movements. “They also develop new theories and concepts that give us a better handle on social, economic, political and natural processes going on around us.”

Research in the social sciences breathes the air of right now, finding new ways to interpret not only what affects us but also who we are. And it comes from every direction, often at once.

“The liberal-arts environment champions a multidisciplinary approach to inquiry,” says Associate Professor of International Business & Management Dave Sarcone, who recently undertook two research projects with his students, “Health Care Market Analysis of Perry County, Pennsylvania,” and “Exploring Healthcare Alliances in Rural Pennsylvania.” “The big questions in the natural and social sciences now more than ever before both require and demand the creativity engendered by the liberal arts throughout the research process—from hypothesis development through design and interpretation of the findings.”

And for Associate Professor of Russian Alyssa DeBlasio, that creative approach can effectively marry the humanities and the sciences to create a better whole, as does her current student-faculty project translating from Russian to English the volcanic activity of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula for volcanologists. Earth sciences and Russian major Billy Irving ’19 is working on the project with DeBlasio, and he’s also been on the other side, studying glaciers and volcanos in British Columbia and Iceland with Professor of Earth Sciences Ben Edwards.

“Doing research at a liberal-arts school is even better because you have all these different perspectives from the different departments and different disciplines,” Irving says. “I’m using both my Russian language skills and my experience with volcanology, and I really love synthesizing my two majors in that way.”

Melinda Schlitt teaching


The arts live, they illuminate

Research in the realm of the arts is as alive as any music or dance performance, and it’s among the oldest disciplinary endeavors, with art history scholarship and research in modern textual studies beginning in the Italian Renaissance.

“Although the general public might associate research more with R-1 universities, some of the most recognized and important scholarship in all fields is undertaken and produced by faculty at liberal-arts colleges,” says Professor of Art History Melinda Schlitt, whose publications include work on Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel as well as a new book about the meaning and aesthetic importance of Rome’s Arch of Constantine.

An annual rite of passage, the art history senior seminar is a collaborative research experience between a faculty member and seniors. Students research, write a professionally published catalogue with scholarly essays and collaborate as curators on a public exhibition in the Trout Gallery. “Essays by students and faculty from recent catalogues have been cited by other art historians in their own scholarship,” says Schlitt, “and the quality of both the catalogues and the exhibition itself comes close to the experience students might have in an M.A. program, which is our goal. And the quality of these collaborative seminars and the scholarship they produce has also had direct success in propelling seniors into jobs, graduate schools and high-level internships.”

In the performing arts, research is literally something that comes alive, something observable to be studied as it moves across a stage.

“In the theatre, arts research in the form of performance is the leading edge of what we do,” says Professor of Theatre Todd Wronski, who has produced and directed plays across the United States and in Scotland, Germany, England and Italy. “It is quite similar to the sciences in that we develop a hypothesis—designs, schedules, etc.—conduct the experiments via rehearsals and then submit the work and see if our thoughts and ideas have worked in a performance. You simply don’t know what you have until you put it in front of an audience.”

Beyond capturing the human spirit and releasing it in various forms, art has served as a continual chorus responding to and commenting on the myriad triumphs and defeats of both society and individuals. And one trend in musicology is the cultivation of forums and opportunities for “public scholarship,” which sets out to emphasize how art and performance can both benefit human society and help engender empathy and awareness among individuals.

The creative investigation is communal—both deliberately and through a kind of creative osmosis.

“As a music historian, I may not create works of art or perform for an audience, but I am able to explain how music can reveal aspects of our culture, whether historical, political or social, and research is crucial to the academic endeavor,” says Associate Professor of Music Amy Wlodarski, whose work in public musicology addresses the Holocaust as well as race, class, gender and sexual orientation. “Statistics and facts are important in all historical research work, but work in the humanities can help to bring in a human dimension. Seeing those voices and experiences represented through art can create connections between individuals separated by time, space, experience and history.”

The human dimension—where data leave off and something resembling the soul picks up—enters the picture again and again in the arts. And often the space where art is created allows for deeper collaboration and exploration in that intimate, nebulous dimension.

“The Goodyear Art Building at Dickinson is a remarkable facility—not only does it contain well-equipped studios for working in wood, metals, ceramics, digital processes, photography, painting and drawing, but it also houses both the student and faculty studios,” says Associate Professor of Studio Art Anthony Cervino, a sculptor whose research often involves the study of material as well as compositional and theoretical processes. “By having all these studios located in the same space, students and faculty often share the building’s resources at the same time, so the creative investigation that occurs in Goodyear is communal, uniquely transparent and a shared experience—both deliberately and through a kind of creative osmosis.”

Osmosis? Isn't that science?

No one will be terribly surprised to hear that science research is vibrant and expansive at Dickinson. The sciences provide a rich backdrop for exploration, and Dickinson’s liberal-arts approach leaves no stone unturned, in an up-close-and-personal setting.

“At a larger research university, undergraduate students would spend the majority of their time working with a postdoc—or possibly even a graduate student—rather than working directly with faculty,” says Associate Professor of Biology Missy Niblock, who’s currently studying the prenatal development of the central chemoreflex and fetal breathing movements in mice with her students. And directly working with a professor has advantages students might not think of immediately. “While we spend most of our time in the lab talking about our research, there also are times when we talk about graduate programs, career options and navigating life after college. So I think students who never work one-on-one with faculty in a research lab miss out on getting to know their professors really well and having the chance to ask about all things related to life in science and life in academics.”

hands holding a slide


Associate Professor of Mathematics Jeff Forrester—who has worked for several years with Associate Professor of Biology Mike Roberts on leukemia-based projects—has lived a life of science and a life of academics. He came to Dickinson from Vanderbilt University, where he worked on a team headed by Alfred Gilman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (1994), under the aegis of the largest breast cancer grant ever awarded. Ask him what research means to Dickinson students, and he has a ready answer.

“It produces people who go on to become top-level researchers—in my area it’s researchers in oncology,” he says, pointing to a photo he has on his desk: It’s four former students, now at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the oncology division at Regeneron Pharmaceuticals and Duke University Medical Center. “I’m hoping to produce 40 or 50 students over my career who are contributing, who go out and make a real difference.”

Whether navigating the intricacies of the human body or the Earth’s complex environmental conditions, making a difference has always played a huge role in what scientific research sets out to do. With the environment, Dickinson’s focuses on sustainability and a global mindset often come together in the research of Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Kristin Strock.

“The Research Corporation for Science Advancement recently highlighted the important—and disproportionate—role that liberal-arts colleges play in educating our nation’s scientists, and due to low class sizes, we’re able to include advanced research experiences in our upper-level courses and work at a one-on-one level with student researchers,” says Strock, who has taken students annually on field expeditions to Greenland, Iceland or Acadia National Park. Three of them recently presented their work to more than 20,000 scientists at the 2018 conference for the American Geophysical Union. “Studies have shown us that undergraduate research builds a wide range of both personal and professional skills for students, including enhanced self-confidence and greater abilities to tolerate obstacles and take on challenges.”


In short, research at Dickinson covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, and students across disciplines, across centuries, have used it as a launch pad. It’s a huge part of what Benjamin Rush had in mind in founding Dickinson, when he said, “Where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.” And it’s something students from around the world look to again and again as a touchstone when defining what it means to be a Dickinsonian.

“Just imagine an international student from Russia with a major in business assisting an American professor of Russian, writing about a Georgian philosopher and researching the first Russian volcanologist while at home in St. Petersburg browsing through the archives in her native language,” says Nastia Khlopina ’18, an international business & management major hailing from Russia. “Complex and impressive! Such a mélange of disciplines, fields, skills and geographical places sounds like an epitome of the liberal arts to me. And this is what I did. This is Dickinson.”

But Wait...There's More!

In addition to the work highlighted here, faculty members and students from across the academic spectrum keep the research rolling, as seen in this small sampling of recent projects.

Aficana Studies
“Whose Lives Really Matter? The Disabled Black Woman and Why She Can’t Say #MeToo”

“Independent Filmmakers (re)scripting the Lives of Black Women with Mental Illness”

American Studies
“White Care: Race and Liberalism in the American Century”

Archaeology and Anthropology
“Lead isotopes as chronological markers for colonial period ritual drinking vessels in the Andes”

“Archaeology at Camp Michaux: A productive collaboration between Dickinson College, Cumberland County Historical Society, and Governmental agencies in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania”

Biochemistry & Molecular Biology
“An Integrative Analysis of Human Cancer: Exploiting the Synergy of Mathematical Biological Approaches in Studying a Complex Problem”

“Probing the Tetrameric Structure of Leishmania Major Pteridine Reductase (PTRI) with Point Mutations and Interface-Derived Peptides”

Computer Science
“Self-Adaptive Chaotic Mutation Operators in Evolutionary Computation”>

Earth Sciences
“Influence of Gígjökull on the Emplacement of the Lava Flow Produced by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, and the Flow’s Effects on Gígjökull’s Resilience to Climate Change”

“Taphonomic Comparison of Recent and Fossil Bryozoans Fouling New Zealand Sea Urchins”

“The Comic Book Industry and Hollywood” “Resistance and Resilience in Salvadoran Storytelling”

International Studies
“The Impacts of the Great Recession on People’s Health and Fertility Outcomes”

“Voluntary Exercise Slows Extinction of Conditioned Hyperactivity in Mice”

“The Effects of Dopamine and Serotonin on Swimming Behavior in Larvae of a Marine Mollusk”

Physics & Astronomy
“Simulating the Orbital Dynamics of Accretion”

“Using an Arduino in a Coupled Logistic Map Circuit to Record Bifurcations and Chaos Conference: 2018 Physics Senior Research Presentations”

Political Science
“Citizenship Rights and Democracy in Latin America”

Exploring China's Narratives

We were six students from the most diverse of disciplines—American studies, food studies, sociology, environmental studies, international relations and women’s, gender & sexuality studies—who met for the first time in the seminar room of the Community Studies Center on campus. A few months later, along with Professor of Anthropology Ann Hill, Director of the Community Studies Center and Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology Susan Rose ’77 and manager of Dickinson’s College Farm Matt Steiman, we found ourselves—with notebooks, cameras and recorders in hand—on the blueberry fields of Fengyu, a six-hour bus ride from the capital of Yunnan Province in China.

The three-week exploratory research trip was funded by an ASIANetwork Freeman grant, and our work began the moment we landed in Kunming. Over the next few days, we dined with professors from Yunnan University to talk about the province’s ethnic constitution, discussed each other’s areas of pre-fieldwork research and explored the city before taking the bus to the village of Fengyu.

In Fengyu, our goal was to understand the impact of labor migration patterns on changing practices in rural agriculture and evolving family structures. Every morning we would meet for breakfast on the wooden craft table on the front porch of our modest hotel and walk to a nearby street vendor for breakfast baozi. That’s where we met Grandma B, who would later invite us into her home to speak for hours about Fengyu’s past. One night, as we strolled through the narrow streets of Fengyu, we heard quiet music coming from a door left ajar. Our curiosity got us invited in and we spent the rest of the night drinking tea while two artists studied scrolls of ancient calligraphy and showed us their paintings. A few days later, we were interviewing members of the local calligraphy association.

That is how we met a lot of the people we interviewed—through smiles and unplanned encounters, through shared meals, celebrations, hikes, funerals and Benzhu ceremonies. We listened eagerly to stories from farmers and restaurant owners, party officials and elderly women, students and teachers. And every evening, the nine of us would sit together and discuss the narratives—at times converging, at others diverging—that had filled our notebooks during the day.

In the weeks following the end of our research, we dispersed—some returning to Carlisle, others starting semesters abroad in China, India or France. We produced individual reports for the primary funding organization of our fieldwork and collected photos and videos to share on campus. In 2019, a few participants will attend the 27th Annual ASIANetwork Conference in San Diego to present our methods and findings. —Alexander Bossakov ’20


Read more from the winter 2019 issue of Dickinson Magazine.


Published February 14, 2019