USC Upstate students are discovering the thrill of research with help from faculty mentors.
BY ELIZABETH ANDERSON
But they won’t be of sunny beaches or scenic getaways. Instead, the rising senior at USC Upstate will be at the mock courtroom in The George, helping to record the “testimony” of actors for a project examining the impact of appearance and presentation style on an expert witness’ credibility.
Wilder is one of many Upstate students who are pursing in-depth research projects with faculty members. The work not only benefits their post-undergraduate careers, but even, in some cases, the fields to which they are contributing.
“Research experiences for undergraduates have always been really important to me, because they were transformative for me when I was an undergraduate,” says Melissa Pilgrim, director of research in the Sponsored Awards and Research Support office.
Pilgram, who is also a biology professor, believes strongly in providing students with research opportunities, and supporting the faculty who offer them. Among her many responsibilities is overseeing the annual SC Upstate Research Symposium and the publication of its proceedings, both of which are forums for students to present their work.
“To me, it’s pretty neat to help develop programs or events that really benefit our students and also our faculty,” Pilgrim says. “It keeps students and faculty engaging with each other.”
Pilgrim says as a first-generation college student herself, she knows how important a mentor can be. When she was an undergraduate, she planned to become a high school biology teacher. One day, after conducting a rattlesnake survey with a professor, she says he sat her down to say, “You know, if you want to teach high school, that’s great, but you need to recognize you’re good at this and there are other options.”
“That set the trajectory for graduate school,” Pilgrim says. “I love teaching, and to me that also means mentoring. I just switched to where I could do that on the college level.”
Assistant professor Thanh Nguyen, who teaches finance at the George Dean Johnson College of Business and Economics, shares Pilgrim’s feeling of paying it forward. “I got help and support from faculty who helped me form a research idea and taught me how to write and make a paper publishable,” he says.
So when he saw William Gregg, a senior business major, sitting in the front of the classroom with a textbook open in front of him, Nguyen wanted to encourage his curiosity. Gregg, he says, was always asking questions about finance, and Nguyen thought he might like to explore a topic in depth.
That has led to two co-authored papers so far, both on bitcoin, and a third one in the works. While the first two were published in the SC Upstate Research Symposium journals, Nguyen is aiming for a professional journal for the third. Every publication is important, Nguyen says, especially for graduate school, where an article will show Gregg “already knows how to write up a research paper and go through the process.”
Gregg says his work with Nguyen inspired him to seek out another faculty member about doing research, assistant professor John Strandholm. “Had professor Nguyen not reached out and started that working relationship, I never would’ve asked professor Strandholm to work with me,” Gregg says.
Now, he says, the two professors are almost as much friends to him as they are mentors. He and Nguyen often play tennis together, and enjoy volleying ideas back and forth along with the ball. Over a post-game coffee, Gregg will share his findings with Nguyen, and the two then determine the next steps.
Strandholm is helping Gregg get up to speed on additional concepts he’ll need to know before graduate school, providing him with reading material and suggesting other courses to take. “They’re two completely different professors in how they do everything, but there’s something I appreciate about both,” Gregg says.
A new perspective
“I started shadowing her in the lab and was like, wow, you’re able to research the unknown, to answer questions that no one knows the answers to,” Fadel says. “I didn’t know you could do that as an undergraduate, and it just completely changed my thinking.”
Shorter recognizes and values that spark of realization. “I really enjoy when I see students get so into the research that they start bringing up their own questions to me and going in their own direction,” she says.
Fadel assisted Shorter with examining the impact of excess vitamin B12 on nerve cell communications, and she received a Magellan Scholar Award from the University of South Carolina to fund some of the work.
She also had an unusual chance to contribute to developing research when she became part of a project looking at the factors influencing people’s decision to practice COVID-19 preventative behaviors, such as mask wearing.
“We learn about infectious diseases in class and how they’re treated and prevented, but to actually have a research project where you’re playing a role in gathering that information gives the student a real-life experience,” says associate professor Ginny Webb, who tapped Fadel for the project. “They’ve had a meaningful impact on disease research.”
With Webb, Fadel co-authored a sub-study of a larger COVID paper that she also contributed to, and with Shorter she has two papers that have been submitted to scientific journals.
Her experiences inspired her to apply to graduate dental schools that included research as part of their program, and she was accepted at several of them. “Research changed the person that I am,” Fadel says. “I think differently now and I appreciate science differently.”
The bigger picture
While having published research is almost a requirement now for graduate school, it’s not the only reason to do a project, says Pilgrim. The skills students learn in the process – “that ability to communicate, whether it’s oral or written, to be part of a team, to collaborate” – can be applied to just about anything they pursue.
“Often you’re doing things that have consequences past you,” Pilgrim adds. “There’s a very big reflective piece to research. You have to put thought into developing the project, but you also need to think about it through time – when it’s done, what does that mean?”
That future outcome is what excites Wilder, the rising senior working on the expert witness research. “I believe it’s going to contribute to findings that will hopefully help new professionals increase their awareness and change their behavior,” she says.
Wilder, a psychology major with a minor in child advocacy studies, plans to pursue a doctorate in school psychology. Since expert witnesses are often critical in child victimization cases, she sees her upcoming work as a way to ensure children’s interests are effectively represented in court.
Wilder, who also received a Magellan Award, is working with Lynn McMillan, the director of the Child Protection Training Center at USC Upstate, and psychology professor Susan Ruppel. Ruppel regularly works with students on independent study projects and says she always sees them grow from the experience.
“The big thing it teaches them is confidence and follow-through,” she says. “I think the students don’t realize what they’re capable of until they actually start engaging in the process. It instills a confidence in them that they might not have had before.”
That has definitely been true for Wilder, who still marvels at where she is right now. Growing up in a single-parent household and experiencing poverty and homelessness, Wilder says at one point she didn’t think she’d finish high school.
“To be able to blossom from almost dropping out to considering getting a Ph.D. and having all these faculty members acknowledge me, it makes me feel so amazing,” she says. “It makes me feel like everything that I went through has built my character to be who I am today, and they see that.”
While Pilgrim is working on a system to collect data on how research impacts graduation and retention rates at Upstate, she says anecdotally, the students she’s seen who pursue undergraduate research have higher graduation rates than those who don’t.
“If we keep our students engaged, and they’re thinking about communicating their work, in my mind that means they’re likely to be pretty engaged community members or engaged in the world around them,” Pilgrim says. “That becomes a win for everyone.”
Sarah Di Stefano, ’21, a political science major, says before she took a class from assistant professor Matthew Placek, she didn’t think she was the research type.
“I used to think I wasn’t really a curious person, but then I realized it’s not that I wasn’t curious, but that nothing had ever really grabbed my interest,” she says.
Placek’s Middle Eastern and North African politics class changed that. Di Stefano recalls watching a documentary on the Arab Spring uprising and how the pro-democratic movement transformed over time to become violent. That shift intrigued her and got her wondering why it had happened so easily in that region. Placek was happy to encourage her interest.
“It takes a lot of work to get a paper like Sarah’s done, where it’s really well-written,” Placek says. “It’s just amazing to watch that process of how it goes from a small idea and then just builds and builds, and then all of a sudden students like Sarah have this really nice paper that showcases their talent.”
Like Pilgrim, Placek was also a first-generation college student and shares her commitment to mentorship.
“The main way I try to teach students, both in my upper-division classes and research methods, is through research, through data management analysis, through pursuing interesting research questions,” he says.
If students have an idea they developed in another professor’s class, Placek helps them find ways to integrate it into his class, so they can keep exploring something they care about. Even if the topic doesn’t exactly fit his class, the methods and sources used in the research are often the same, he says.
Di Stefano, like Fadel, found herself expanding her criteria for graduate school. While she always planned to go to law school, she originally thought she’d do corporate law. She credits Placek for planting a seed about international law.
“He said, this is what you’re looking at, this is what you’re interested in and what you’re researching, have you considered that avenue?” she recalls.
She is now applying at schools with strong international law programs and was awarded the best undergraduate paper submission to the USC Upstate Student Research Journal. “You always want to feel like you learned something in four years,” she says. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something, and that I’ve come out with more than I went into it with.”
That is exactly the outcome Pilgrim loves to see. “For me, the undergraduate research experience epitomizes experiential learning,” she says. “It helps students be very functional graduates in terms of being more competitive for the workforce and for professional programs, things that help them with their lifelong goals.”
Just do it
Students and faculty alike say getting involved in research is as easy as approaching a professor who teaches something you’re interested in. If you’re shy about dropping by office hours, than an email is fine too, they advise.
Faculty are also a good resource even when students aren’t sure what they’d like to work on. Shorter, like many faculty advisors, keeps track of what her departmental colleagues are working on so when students come to her, she can provide a rough description of what’s in progress.
Students also shouldn’t feel they have be thoroughly versed in a subject before asking to work with a professor. Webb says she assures students, “I can teach you the science, I can teach you the research process. All I ask for is commitment and responsibility for doing what you say you’re going to do.”
Placek says at times the most satisfying result isn’t seeing a top student receive awards and accolades for their work, though that makes him very proud, too. Sometimes, he says, it’s seeing a student who “came here with no idea of what they’re doing” follow an idea through to completion and have something to show for it at the end.
“Because that’s what it’s about,” he says. “It’s not about perfection, it’s about growth.”