Rare Research

Inside the Rollins program that partners undergraduates and faculty in real-world research.

Anne Murdaugh and Yassine Acoine ’19 (Photo by Scott Cook) Anne Murdaugh and Yassine Acoine ’19 (Photo by Scott Cook)

This is the reason Yassine Acoine ’19 came to Rollins. The first-year pre-engineering major from Casablanca, Morocco, is holed up in a Bush Science Center lab, peering into a massive, high-powered microscope that allows him to explore the feathery root hairs of a radish on a nano scale. Physics professor Anne Murdaugh is by Acoine’s side, poised to discuss the microscopic world he’s navigating. The pair are investigating novel ways to foster plant growth as part of Rollins’ Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program, which partners students and faculty in real-world research and scholarship.

“Doing research as an undergrad is one of the things that attracted me to Rollins,” says Acoine, who views this experience as a crucial stepping stone to a career in biomedical engineering. “On other campuses, it can be really hard to get into a research program as a freshman. It’s even harder as an international student. This program makes it much more accessible.”

Over the last 17 years, more than 500 students and more than 100 faculty across 26 academic departments have participated in the program. These collaborations have resulted in more than 55 peer-reviewed publications, books, and artistic equivalents such as theatrical performances, and they have helped more than 30 students attain honors designations.

“The students participating in the program are accepted into graduate programs at an exceedingly high rate,” says Christopher Fuse, an associate professor of physics who has been program director since 2010. “I can speak specifically for a major like physics, where more than 75 percent of our students participating in the program have gone to graduate school. The program really does allow students to experience cutting-edge academic research, similar to what is found at the graduate level.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Program Origin

This program, or at least the idea of it, is one of the things that drew Thomas Moore to Rollins in 1999, after a career in the Army and a stint teaching physics at West Point. During his interview, College officials told him they wanted someone who could actively engage undergraduate students as research partners—not just to watch and learn, but to roll up their sleeves and actually do the work. Moore was intrigued. After all, there weren’t many colleges doing that sort of thing.

“It is not common, and it certainly wasn’t 17 years ago,” he says.

The chemistry department was already doing something along those lines, but it wasn’t codified into a formal program. During Moore’s first semester at Rollins in the fall of 1999, the dean asked Moore to do just that. By the next summer, the program had funding, and Moore was working with his first set of undergrad researchers. For the next 10 years, Moore ran the program as it took hold and flourished.

“What the students get out of it is the experience of actually doing research—attacking a problem to which no one knows the answer,” Moore says. “Most of the college experience is teachers guiding the process and arriving at an answer that is already known. Research, if you’re doing honest-to-God research, no one really knows the answer to the question you are asking. When [our students] go to grad school, they are way ahead of everybody else.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Inner Workings

Every fall, professors across the college scout out students, usually freshmen or sophomores, who show exceptional potential—students who stay late and ask questions. Over the next few months, the professors and their students work together on a research proposal. The proposal includes a detailed literature review and can be as long as 15 pages. In fact, students can receive two independent study credits just for writing one.

Between 35 and 60 proposals are submitted every year—about 45 percent in humanities and social sciences, the rest in natural sciences— right before spring break. Of those, an average of 40 are funded from an annual program budget of about $250,000, which consists of alumni donations and institutional funds. The selected proposals require a full-time commitment for eight weeks over the summer. Each student receives a $3,000 stipend and can live on campus for free. Professors receive a slightly larger stipend. In addition, each project is awarded $500 for supplies. The College also pays for students to go to conferences and present their findings—not in the student category, but alongside professional academics.

“Many colleges have research opportunities for students,” Fuse says. “What makes our program stand out is we never think of our students as doing a little bit of work here and there. They’re side by side with us; they’re doing the major research with us. What we want is that our students will be there for the inception of the program through the completion.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Proof Points

Anne Fertig ’13, an English major, was involved in the program all four years of her Rollins career, and indeed, it set the stage for her Fulbright scholarship and graduate work. In the fall of her freshman year, English professor Ed Cohen noticed that Fertig “seemed to be more savvy than the average first-year student,” he says.

He’d been working on a project about an obscure Scottish poet named Marion Bernstein, whose work was published in Glasgow newspapers in the late 19th century though little was known about her. Her poems “were pretty feisty,” Cohen says. “That is, she wrote about the fact that women had no vote. She wrote about the squalid working and living conditions for working-class people in Glasgow. I thought this might be an opportunity to collaborate with a student.”

So he approached Fertig. Over the next several years, they realized that Bernstein had contracted polio as a child and had been housebound; all she learned about world events she learned from the Glasgow Weekly Mail, the newspaper that published her poetry. Fertig suggested they collect Bernstein’s poetry into a book. They uncovered some 200 poems, just as Bernstein was gaining notice among the scholarly community, and landed a book contract with the Association for Scottish Literary Studies.

By the third summer of their collaboration, Fertig was in the United Kingdom, studying at the University of Lancaster. Cohen flew over to meet her. Together, they spent two weeks combing through Bernstein’s poetry, sometimes reading the text back to each other, other times looking up references they didn’t understand on Fertig’s laptop. Then they took a train to Glasgow to meet with the publishing company and do more research.

In 2013, with the help of Scottish scholar Linda Fleming, Cohen and Fertig published A Song of Glasgow Town: The Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein.

“We divvied up the responsibilities,” Cohen says. “Anne wrote on Marion Bernstein’s feminism and faith. I wrote on the text and the life and also the prose style. [Fleming] worked on Marion Bernstein from the Scottish historical perspective.”

“This opportunity really shaped the direction of my career, both at Rollins and after,” Fertig says. “I had always had an interest in Scottish history, but this experience taught me that I could make that passion a career.”

In her last year at Rollins, Fertig was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study at the University of Glasgow. She’s now a PhD student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where she’s studying English literature.

“The opportunity to do real, hands- on historical work so early in my undergraduate career really allowed me to find my calling,” she says. “It gave me practical experience in the field, while allowing me to explore a specialized area of study in depth. It also exposed me to forms of academic research and writing that most people don’t learn until graduate school.”

Cohen and Fertig aren’t the only student-faculty pair that have formed a long-term working relationship through the program. Brittany Hollister ’12, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, became the first student to partner with biology professor Susan Walsh, during her sophomore year in 2009.

Hollister, Walsh says, wasn’t an A student, but that was OK.

“I want the B students who aren’t sure,” Walsh says, “students I can build a relationship with.”

Together, they studied a protein involved in mitochondrial movement by looking at zebrafish.

“We just worked in the lab all summer,” Walsh says. “This was her first research experience. She said she wanted to go to pharmacy school. After doing research, she said she wanted to do research.”

“This experience made me absolutely decide that I did want to do research and go to grad school,” Hollister says.

Of the 15 grad schools she applied to, she was accepted at 13. She ultimately chose Vanderbilt University, where she will complete her PhD next year.

“I think it was because of this experience—being able to think like a scientist and read papers, troubleshoot experiments, think critically about results, think about next steps,” Hollister says. “Most of my friends in grad school did labs in their coursework. No one else had that sort of individual research beyond the course. Faculty were very impressed everywhere I interviewed.”

Neeraj Chatlani ’17 hopes his research opens the same kinds of doors. As a freshman, he partnered with Dan Myers, an associate professor of computer science, to work on creating a prototype application to schedule college classes. This year, he submitted a poster proposal to present his work at a conference.

“You are doing science,” Chatlani says. “You are exploring facets of your career path, your field, that haven’t really been explored. This work can lead to actual publications.”

This is, in fact, a primary goal: “That’s the level of work that we expect—to wild success,” says Fuse, the program director. “The number of students who get publications out of this program, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

And that’s why Fuse would like to see the scholarship program grow in the coming years.

“I would love to know that we are able to fund 50 or 60 collaborations,” he says. “That would be wonderful. I would love to see every faculty member engaged with their students and [for us to have] the ability to fund that—get it endowed. Academics across the country are going toward more research [with] their undergrads. They know that research is the most intense kind of learning they can do. The only way we go from here is up.”

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

Beyond Rollins

More than three-quarters of program participants go on to grad school. Others are using their research skills in different realms.

Anne Fertig ’13
Fertig, an English major, worked with Professor Ed Cohen to dive deep into the life and work of 19th-century Scottish poet Marion Bernstein, which culminated in the publication of the book A Song of Glasgow Town: The Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein. Fertig is now a PhD student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Brittany Hollister ’12
Hollister, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, partnered with Professor Susan Walsh to analyze a protein involved in mitochondrial movement by looking at zebrafish. Last year, they published a paper on their research. Hollister, who is now a PhD candidate in the Human Genetics Training Program at Vanderbilt University, was lead author.

Emma Broming ’12
Broming, a physics and music double major, worked on a project with physics professor and program director Christopher Fuse to study the evolution of small galaxy systems over time. During her junior and senior years, Broming presented her findings at American Astronomical Society meetings. “The most valuable thing was all of the writing experience, which was very valuable to my job,” says Broming, now an economic and financial consultant. “The skills that I learned in physics, specifically related to analytics and the writing, made it an easy transition.”