Symposium highlights undergraduate research efforts at South Georgia State College
By: Dr. Frank Holiwski and Dr. Rosa Guedes
A visitor to Stubbs Hall on the Douglas Campus of South Georgia State College (SGSC) during the week of April 15 could be forgiven for being overwhelmed. A striking Harlem Renaissance-inspired painting catches the eye as soon as one enters room 143, a student presents on the ecology of the Sumatra tiger in room 142 and the hallway is lined with students standing by poster presentations detailing a plethora of facts about fungi. And that’s just a snapshot in a week-long Undergraduate Research (UR) Symposium that saw dozens of presentations viewed by over four hundred attendees.
The SGSC UR Symposium has been held, in one form or another, since 2011. Created by one-time SGSC sociology professor Dr. Leonard A. Steverson, and now coordinated by Dr. Frank Holiwski, professor of psychology, the Symposium is a special event meant to celebrate student research efforts and promote the college’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), infusing research across the curriculum.
Originally a one day event held once a year, the symposium is now a week-long event in both fall and spring semesters. It has grown from an original slate of four presenters to over 50 at the most recent event. And, while the first symposium was attended by a dozen or so curious on-lookers, the spring 2019 symposium was attended by a record 402 faculty, staff, students and community members.
Students presented on everything from rabies and the global decline of the insect population to labor strikes during the gilded age and theories of human development. There were presentations from disciplines such as biology, history, sociology and psychology.
The spring 2019 symposium also featured a special presentation by three elite student-researchers, Carrie Griffin, Mureed Hamdani and Travis Simmons. The three intrepid researchers shared with the audience their experiences of being presenters at a conference at the University of Georgia the previous week. Griffin and Hamdani, both in the Bachelor of Biological Sciences program, and Simmons, a recent graduate, supplemented the content-oriented presentations with their reflections on the process of conducting and presenting research.
Presenting at the UR Symposium helped students master their disciplines, while also building other valuable skills. According to biology major Jared Bare, “I often have stage fright when it concerns presentations, so I feel the research symposium helped me become more confident. Presentations are a part of life, so making progress on how to deal with my fears by presenting in front of an audience at the research symposium was a good experience for me.”
The symposium also served to inform students attendees on topics related to classes they may not have taken. According to Savannah Sparks, a general studies major, “The symposium was very eye opening. I learned about some subjects I wouldn't otherwise seek out on my own. I will be going next semester and the next. I recommend the symposium to anyone and everyone.”
According to Travis Simmons, the symposium experience had even more direct benefits for him. “I went on two job interviews and both of them asked me multiple questions about my experience at the research symposium – and neither of the jobs had anything to do with research, they were both in retail. I wound up taking one of those jobs, and I think talking about the symposium with the employer helped. They seemed really interested.”
While students are the focus of the symposium, faculty mentors are essential to the event; each student is guided through the research process by a faculty member. This semester the faculty mentors were Dr. Rosa Guedes, associate professor of biology/ecology; Dr. Robert Potter, assistant professor of biology; Dr. Yoga Sundram, associate professor of anatomy and physiology/microbiology; Dr. Dana Caldemeyer, assistant professor of history; Dr. Julie Havens, assistant professor of biology; Dr. Nirmal Niroula, assistant professor of sociology; and Dr. Frank Holiwski, professor of psychology. Past semesters have seen participation from other faculty members as well. And those faculty members who do not mentor students also contribute in a host of ways, not the least of which is encouraging their students to attend one or more days of the symposium.
Dr. Potter, who mentored many students stated, “Biology II students have been part of URS for the past two years. About one-third of the enrollment elects to participate. Each presenter benefits by gaining experience in public speaking as well as doing the research needed for their presentation. And, that line on their resume gives lasting value.” This sentiment was shared by Dr. Rosa Guedes, a faculty member from the School of Sciences, and one of the head organizers of the symposium. “In my opinion, public speaking is one of the greatest skills that students need to learn in college. The UR Symposium offers an opportunity for students to enjoy the process of building their public speaking skills.” She added, “I hope they will learn to love it by the time they graduate.”
The importance of the UR symposium was reiterated by Dr. Robert Page, vice-president for academic and student affairs, who added, “The Undergraduate Research Symposium is an excellent opportunity to highlight the hands-on work that students have done at SGSC. Engagement in research activities - whether in the natural sciences or social sciences – allows for a deeper level of learning for our students. We’re exceptionally proud of the work they have done in the classrooms and in their presentations.”
So how do you celebrate such a successful event? According to Dr. Holiwski, not only has the call gone out for presenters for the Fall 2019 UR Symposium, but faculty members have already responded with requests for timeslots. Also, over the years, community partners have taken a special interest in the UR Symposium. Generous donors, such as Sunbelt Greenhouses, continue annually to make contributions as a way to sustain the program that has benefited the students at SGSC.