Digging In

Students bring energy, skill and enthusiasm to faculty research projects.

By John McLain

If you ask Mariah Smith and Levi Travis what they did over the summer, you’ll find out it involved a lot of dirt.

Students in lab

Students return to the lab to analyze what they have gathered.

At research plots in South Sound prairies, around Mount St. Helens, and on Evergreen’s campus, the two juniors collected more than 500 soil samples and 448 plant community samples representing 200 different species.

Environmental Questions

The harder digging began when they returned to the lab to analyze what they gathered. The work was demanding and sometimes monotonous, they said, but the sporadic “Aha!” moments made it worthwhile as they pursued answers to elemental questions, such as: How does controlled burning affect soils and plant biodiversity in prairie ecosystems? Does vegetation in a volcanic blast zone recover differently in clearcuts and old growth forests? What role does fire play in the release of mercury, a toxic trace metal, into the atmosphere?

Travis and Smith were part of Evergreen’s new Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), an initiative that gave 15 students a stipend to immerse themselves in faculty research projects across the disciplinary spectrum.

For Smith, SURP offered a way to pull together years of study. As an uncertain first-year art student two years ago, she took Drawing on Earth, an interdisciplinary program offered by geologist Abir Biswas and visual artist Lucia Harrison. She came for the drawing, but got hooked on the geology. After two more years of hard-core science, with a lot of emphasis in earth sciences, she was ready for Biswas’ SURP project.

“It’s been exciting to take all the things I’ve been piecing together from different academic programs and focus them all into a single project,” Smith said. “It’s challenged me with things I haven’t done before, and it’s really building the knowledge I’ve been trying to shape since I started at Evergreen.”

Biswas works closely with Travis‘ SURP mentor, forest ecologist Dylan Fischer. Though Fischer’s and Biswas’ areas of expertise are very different, their interests overlap, and their SURP projects shared many of the same field sites and functioned collaboratively. For Travis, whose assignment focused on plant communities, the crossover with Biswas’ and Smith’s work on biogeochemical processes was golden.

“I wanted to gain a broader understanding of ecosystems in the Puget Sound area,” Travis said. “I wasn’t sure what I was getting into as far as the exact research questions, but I knew I’d gain a lot of relevant field experiences and get to work alongside people with tremendous expertise.”

Much of the credit for SURP’s existence goes to Fischer. Last fall, he spearheaded an innovative idea: Let faculty compete for 15 strong undergraduate research students and pay those students for a summer immersed in the faculty’s ongoing research programs. The students would devote at least 20 hours per week to projects, and they’d meet regularly as an interdisciplinary team. Faculty would benefit from skilled support to get substantive work done.

Provost Michael Zimmerman immediately saw the proposal’s potential to influence students’ lives and advance quality research. “Dylan and his colleagues envisioned a program with students as genuine partners in the research endeavor,” he said. “They didn’t merely want another set of hands; they were interested in actively engaged minds. The power of such an approach, that kind of belief and trust in the capabilities of students, was too good to pass up.”

Students agreed. More than 80 students applied for the 15 positions available.

Urban Planning

Shira Moch, a senior from Florida, described her SURP assignment as the “most professional experience I’ve had.” She worked on a study of municipal retail planning practices in Washington with faculty members Jennifer Gerend, an urban planner, and Ralph Murphy, a political scientist.

Though most of us don’t give much thought to where we buy our toothbrushes and dish soap, for Gerend and Murphy, retail policy directly impacts a community’s quality of life, environment, and economic well-being. Retail drives tax revenue, impacts transportation and infrastructure costs, and takes up a huge amount of land.

With several urban planning classes under her belt, along with statistics, research methods, economics, and an internship with the City of Olympia, Moch was instrumental to Gerend and Murphy’s survey of 200 city retail planners in the state—from design to reliability testing to follow-up calls that generated a remarkable 75 percent response rate. “I’ve been learning things I definitely wouldn’t be learning in a classroom or out of a book,” she said.

For her faculty, Moch was an indispensible partner—“a star,” Gerend said. Murphy agrees: “We couldn’t have done it without Shira, because she’s extraordinarily good, and our resources aren’t adequate to do this amount of work if she weren’t here doing it.”

Documenting Knowledge

While Travis and Smith trekked through actual forests and prairies, and Moch pushed into dense policy thickets of municipal planning, senior Katie Aymar spent her summer charting new paths for the construction and categorization of knowledge.

Aymar worked on literary arts faculty Miranda Mellis’ collaborative multivolume collection of innovative prose and art. The Encyclopedia Project takes the form of a traditional encyclopedia, with entries arranged alphabetically—but the similarity ends there. Contributors were free to respond to prompts that became the publication’s entries, such as: essentialism, jump rope, how-to, hardtack and bees. The work draws heavily from voices frequently left out of the development of mainstream knowledge—women, people of color, the LGBTQ community. “Let’s rethink our classifications,” one contributor wrote, which is as apt a description of the encyclopedia as any.

In addition to beginning the preparation of a third and final volume, Aymar built an index to curate entries in ways that honored the unique expressions of human experience and didn’t impose her own filters. “The entries tie together in a lot of ways that are like a puzzle,” she said. “There are conversations happening and common patterns. It asks people to play with language, to negotiate a grammar that’s not necessarily normal or standardized.”

Aymar, Moch, Smith, and Travis, along with their 11 SURP colleagues, presented the results of their summer work at a campus-wide celebration of the program in October.

Zimmerman has asked faculty and staff to evaluate the program’s effectiveness and make recommendations for its continuation. If preliminary results are any indication, Evergreen students are likely to be digging in for many summers to come.

Students doing urban planning research (above), collecting soil and plant samples (right), and returning to the lab analyze what they have gathered (above left).