“This represents the heart of what we do here at Colby ... and each year this gets bigger.” That’s how Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer described the 14th annual Colby Undergraduate Research Symposium when she introduced the keynote session May 1.
Once again the research presentations, held May 1-3 this year, and associated sessions that began in April, boasted record numbers of participating students and research topics.
“The wide range of activities at the symposium display discipline-specific content at very great depth,” Kletzer said, “with many if not all of the other skills that we talk about in a liberal arts education.” Among skills exhibited, Klezter listed analytical, technical, research, communications, and problem-solving skills, patience, organization, persistence. “It’s a long list, and I have not even gotten halfway through it.”
Some 800 students were authors or coauthors of research projects, papers, presentations, and posters this year in what organizers call a celebration of scholarship. Twenty-nine departments and programs had participants during the three-day spree, and this year there were 210 oral presentations alone, compared to 153 last May. “The point is we have something really great that goes on here,” Kletzer said. “Now it’s really time to learn from each other.”
With that she introduced three professors who shared keynote duties.
Adrianna Paliyenko, the Charles A. Dana Professor of French, talked about her research and the role students have played in it. Paliyenko has spent a decade studying French women poets of the 19th century and how they were marginalized and, more often, erased from the literary canon in a society where “female” and “genius” were antithetical. She announced she had just learned that her book project, Genius Envy: Women Shaping French Poetic History, 1801-1900, had a publisher.
Charles Conover, the William A. Rogers Professor of Physics, described “the coolest place in Maine”—the laboratories where physics students research quantum mechanics in extremely cold atoms. By using six lasers from six different directions to slow atoms down, he and his students have been able to study atoms at .001 degree Kelvin. “That is cool, literally and figuratively,” he said.
Like Paliyenko, Conover talked about a long line of research assistants who have made the work possible. He singled out Ai Phuong Tong ’15, who built much of the more-recent electronics they use in the lab. “With the work she’s done, we stabilized the color of the laser to a part in a hundred million,” he said. “Any time you do anything to a part in a hundred million, it’s really a lot of work.”
Last, John Turner, associate professor of history, applied his expertise in the history of Islam to current events and prejudices. “Glib assumptions about the meanings of words,” he said, “and projected yet phantasmagoric understandings of data points divorced from historical context yield bad results, bad interpretations, and sometimes war.” He concluded with a broader view of his discipline and his work. “My role as a historian is to help make sense of the data, to give it meaning,” he said. “Doing research, collaborating in our quest to find the answer—and the question first—gives you power.”