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Ric Evans

If college undergraduates had to write an essay about what they did for their summer vacation, words like busboy, waitress, and lifeguard probably would appear in more than one paper. But Pitt’s Brackenridge scholars have their own common word when it comes to summer vacation: research.

Summer Love

Written by Sally Ann Flecker

 Honors College Dean Alec Stewart (left) takes part in a spirited conversation
with, among others, Brackenridge Fellow Michael Bushey.
The usual order, a dozen Papa John’s large pizzas, are delivered to a spacious conference room on the third floor of the Cathedral of Learning. Upon arrival, they are pounced on by 40 or so of the University’s most promising, and hungry, undergraduate scholars. While their classmates are home for summer break or working at summer jobs, these budding biologists and writers, philosophers and anthropologists, art historians and mathematicians are all immersed in their own research projects. Every Wednesday, though, they get together, have pizza, and present and defend their works-in-progress.

Program founder and Honors College Dean Alec Stewart is fond of saying that the Brackenridge Summer Fellows Program is one thing that the Honors College is doing right. Stewart is exaggerating—intentionally, of course—to underline the significance of the Brackenridge for these pizza-loving undergraduate students.

Fourteen years ago, Stewart hatched the idea to develop a summer research program for undergraduate students. For years, he had stewed over the fact that college keeps students hopping from one class to the next, one semester after another. “Strange as this may sound,” he says, “undergraduate education is designed in a way that keeps students from doing anything well. They’re too busy. It’s great to be a bright, able, motivated student, but if you’ve got five three-credit classes with term papers and a GPA that you’re always keeping an eye on, the way you make your decisions doesn’t have anything to do with your education; it has to do with optimizing your future. As a result, you’re just jumping through one hoop after another and don’t have time to immerse yourself to do something well. Good, independent work takes uninterrupted time.”

So, he developed the Brackenridge as tonic, trying out a pilot program with a handful of students in 1989. With $3,000 summer stipends attached—roughly the pay most student researchers receive at national laboratories—the undergraduates didn’t have to worry about summer jobs flipping burgers or waiting on tables to earn some cash. Instead, they could delve into a scholarly project, one that they proposed. They were given the chance to do research, as Stewart likes to say, “in an unfettered way” with faculty members acting as sounding boards and advisors.

The Brackenridge caught on—big time—growing to 20, then 30, and now 40 students. (That’s about as big as the program can get and still maintain its distinctive elements, including the three or so presentations every Wednesday, says Stewart.) Initially the proposals came in from the sciences and engineering. Over time, as word got out, other disciplines came on board. The program isn’t limited to Honors College participants. Any undergraduate with an interesting idea is welcome to apply. Last year, for the first time, humanities and social science proposals outnumbered the others. The Brackenridge attracts about 100 proposals each year.

It’s easy to whittle the number down to 60 candidates, Stewart says. “After that, it’s extremely difficult, because the students are genuinely enthusiastic and the level of proposals is really quite good.”

But the Brackenridge, named for Pitt founder Hugh Henry Brackenridge and funded through Pitt’s Office of the Provost and the Honors College endowment, is not only about scholarship and research. Stewart is just as intent on developing a sense of community among these intellects. For that, there are Wednesdays. A Brackenridge Fellow comes out of self-imposed hibernation—out of the laboratory or the library stacks—to devour not just pizza, but ideas. Says Stewart: “I’m a true believer in liberal arts education. This business of reading, writing, and thinking across the disciplines is something that should be preserved.”

In fact, the interdisciplinary nature of the Brackenridge meetings is what distinguishes the program. While other universities may sponsor research opportunities for undergraduates, the Brackenridge’s weekly lunch meeting—and the community that it fosters—are unique.

At the Brackenridge meetings, the chemist explains his work to the musician, the sociologist, the theologian. The social psychologist answers questions from the molecular biologist and the art historian. It’s very different from the graduate school model, where scholars of one discipline talk among themselves. While graduate-level discourse does work to deepen a student’s understanding of the field, Stewart fervently believes college is the time to develop breadth—a sense of all that is out there: “It’s all too easy and obvious to just turn undergraduates into mini-graduate students. We want to preserve the element of scope.”

There’s no shortage of chatter as the Brackenridge Fellows gather during an afternoon in May for one of the group’s first meetings. The long room features orderly sets of tables for two, with attached swivel chairs. Before the meeting, students tend to drape themselves on and around the furniture. One young woman with shoulder-length curly hair crouches on the floor between a couple of guys in animated conversation. Over in the back corner, a young man with thick black glasses debates with a female friend about whether a supermodel is pretty without make-up. At another table, two students, heads bent, talk about boyfriend woes. It’s standard, casual conversation among easygoing, some even sleepy, undergraduates.

The atmosphere in the room tenses when the first of three presenters begins; seats are taken. If everyone is not literally sitting straight up, they are, at the very least, all ears. All of which rattles the first presenter, Michael Bushey. The formal title of his Brackenridge project is “A Genetic Screen for Cellular Resistance to Cigarette Smoke Exposure.” He’s working this summer, he says, with yeast cells. On the blackboard, he draws a picture of chromosomes separating in regular mitosis. His voice is tight; he tries to dispel his nervousness with humor. “It’s a problem, exposing yeast cells to smoke,” he says, “because yeast cells don’t like to smoke. They know it’s bad for them.” He moves through his presentation, most last between 20 and 30 minutes, picking up confidence as he explains that he’s using a cigarette smoke concentrate that he gets from the cigarette companies, that he’s looking for the damage caused by smoke, trying to understand, at the cellular level, the proteins and pathways that are affected.

Questions come from all over:

Why did you choose this specific line of research?

Have you ever tried to use a polyphotic solvent instead of a DMSO solvent?

Where are you going from here?

Stewart sits sideways in a chair in the front row, turned so that he can watch both Bushey and the other students. “This is the only place where the Q&As last longer than the presentations,” he whispers in a delighted aside to the person nearest him. He is a proud, avuncular presence.

The discussion continues, with students intending to prod the speaker and explore as much of the topic for themselves as they can. One fellow raises his hand to say, “You think this is so obvious that you never brought it up: Why is this important?” Before Bushey can even respond, the questioner has figured it out. “Is it because it relates to humans?” Bushey nods and talks about the potential implications for human cells.

Another begins his question: “I’m just a humanities major, but…” By the middle of the summer, such disclaimers will have been outlawed not so much by common agreement as by mutual respect for the intellectual power of each Fellow, regardless of his or her academic orientation. In other words, there’s no room here for “wimps.” Even poets should understand molecules.

Stewart seems to bask in the interaction. “It’s always dangerous for old geezers to put together programs for 20-year-olds,” he says. “But it’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of meeting interesting people as an undergraduate. What the Brackenridge does is get together a group of interesting people. I love to go to these meetings. It’s a no-holds-barred intellectual battle. They’re all excited about life above the neck, and what they respect in one another is each other’s enthusiasm, independent of what their discipline is. It’s simple getting the right people together and closing the door. And the pizza helps.”

Not every Brackenridge remains on campus.

Ann Schattle’s revelation came to her in a world cities course in the history of art and architecture department. The instructor chuckled when the third-year urban studies major chose for her project to study not Paris or London or Rome—but Providence, R. I., near where she grew up. That city’s renaissance included the idea to register as a historic site the entire downtown area, where many textile mills that once helped fuel the Industrial Revolution were now boarded up. Schattle had a personal interest in the issue. She often attended events held at a performing space that had once been one of Providence’s textile mills, called Fort Thunder. In 2001, the group lost its thunder to a strip-mall developer.

Last year, Schattle got the go-ahead for a Brackenridge that would consist of an intense summer’s on-site research project tracking the individual histories of Providence’s textile mills. Schattle, based in Providence for most of the summer, didn’t regularly share pizza with her undergraduate colleagues. (She did give her presentation to them, though, during a three-day Brackenridge bonding retreat that Stewart schedules to take place every summer at Pitt’s Johnstown campus.)

Kelly Rottmund, a fledgling nonfiction writer, used her Brackenridge to create, as she explained in her proposal, “a vivid story of the history and progress of Pittsburgh’s Eastern European community and its sense of belonging as told through the pierogi—a small, crescent-shaped dumpling filled with potato, cottage cheese, or sauerkraut.” One aspect of her research took her deep into the archives of the history museum. But her other research was firsthand—and hands-on. She made pierogies—or tried to—with recent emigrants from Belarus, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Rottmund, an intense young woman with corkscrew curly hair held back by a pair of sunglasses, sat cross-legged on a desk at the front of the room for her presentation. She tells her audience that she had hoped to learn these women’s personal stories.

What is it like to emigrate? How does acculturation occur?

The concept looked terrific on paper. What Rottmund hadn’t bargained for was a language barrier. More often than not, the amiable conversation swirling around Rottmund in the industrial kitchen was Polish or Russian. Still, as every writer—and more than one Brackenridge student that summer—eventually discovers, the best stories aren’t always the ones you set out for—they’re the ones you’re alert enough to discover.

Rottmund’s final paper offers a resonant moment: Tanya’s pleated skirt swishes around her calves. Sometimes she turns to me and says, “Kelly, I want to practice my English.” She took English lessons at the library for three months. She begins to recite words. “Autumn, spring, summer, fall, knife…” We list things surrounding us and talk about hobbies and vacations. When there are words she doesn’t know I sketch them in the dunes of flour spread across the table.

Many Brackenridge Fellows initially find themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of their projects, how infinite the number of books they could read, how endless the number of things to know. For many of them, the sheer discovery of how to focus a project into something manageable and doable will be the priceless part of a valuable experience. Says Stewart: “They learn what it means to know something—and how you know what you know.”

Yakov Chodosh says he threw every idea he had into his abstract, “Comics as Visual Literature,” intending to cover the history of comics, synthesize the critical literature on the art form, and provide a close reading of several works. He could see pretty quickly that he would have to narrow the topic. But in order to do that, he needed to do wide research first, which he welcomed. “It was exactly what I’ve wanted to do for years,” he says. “Reading comics and writing about them, second to playing music and dancing, is my favorite thing to do. Without money, without support, without time, you just can’t do it. So that is exactly what the Brackenridge gave me—money, support, and time.”

For Emily Raike’s pursuit of her Brackenridge— “Potential for Horror in Elizabethan and Jacobean Theater: Scaring the Renaissance Audience”—she found herself pulling all-nighters, despite the absence of the usual triggers—exams, multiple deadlines. Her advisors had to keep reminding her that she was writing a paper, not a book. But she was so excited at delving into the work of the literary critics—and even more by the sense that she had an original contribution to make—that she kept going and going.

Her energy was boundless. Summer mornings, in fact, she somehow found time to spend at the Trees Hall pool teaching youngsters how to swim. She’d arrive at the Wednesday meetings with her hair still dripping and her dress on the casual side of the Brackenridge spectrum. She’d march up to the front of the room to take a seat where she could look the presenter right in the eye. Before the summer had begun, she’d asked a former Brackenridge Fellow if he had any advice.

Ask one question of every presenter, he’d told her.

So, that was her goal for the summer. She took notes on the presentations, kept them in a binder, and had extended discussions with the presenters afterward. The other students even kidded her: Emily, there’s not going to be a test on this.

But ask her what she learned, and she’ll tell you two things: She learned that she could participate, and she learned to value what she thought.

Sally Ann Flecker is a freelance writer and former editor in chief of this magazine.

Honors College Dean Alec Stewart (left) takes part in a spirited conversation with, among others, Brackenridge Fellow Michael Bushey.


Here are some of the titles of this summer’s Brackenridge fellowships:

Ladder to the Moon: Language and Metalanguage in Wittgenstein and Zen

Analyzing Modern Christian Fiction and Its Function in the Ideological State Apparatus

A Comparative Analysis of the Collatz Problem

2D-FT-ESR Studies of the Human Glycine Receptor

Media War Coverage: A Comparative Analysis

Psychoanalytic Ethics of Lacan: An Ethics of Desire Connecting Poetry and Art through the Lens of Modernism

Genetic Analysis of the RNA Polymerase II Phosphatase FCPI

The Emergence of Mary in the Popular Catholicism of Italy

The Hip-Hop Struggle: A Continuation of African American Creative Traditions under Attack

Black Keys: Music in Hitchcock’s Noir Films Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train

A Study of Western Tuning Schemes

Flanking Sequence Effects on the Interaction of BAMHI with Its Specific DNA Substrate

Psychology of Terrorism: Assessing the Prospects for Ending Terrorism in a Post-9/11 World

TGFB Receptors and Protein Degradation in Muscle

The Lost Shul: A Case Study of the Kittanning Jewish Community

Measuring Spin Decoherence of Single Electrons in GE/SI Quantum Dots

Investigation of the Topological Patterns in Two-Dimensional Fluids

Film City: Pittsburgh’s Hidden Industry

They are being completed by undergraduates with the following majors:

Biological Sciences
Electrical Engineering
English Literature/English Writing
Environmental Studies/Political Science
Film Studies/Music
Germanic Languages and Literatures
History of Art and Architecture/English
Information Science/Music/Geographic
   Information Systems (Cert.)
Molecular Biology
Philosophy/Germanic Languages and
Philosophy/Religious Studies
Political Science
Politics and Philosophy/History
Rhetoric and Communication
Urban Studies

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