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Research—the hard job of unearthing raw knowledge—takes curiosity, wits, persistence, and, at first, an expert guide. At Pitt, freshmen and other undergraduates get an early start in labs, libraries, and even London.

Learning to Look

Allison Schlesinger

  Sechler and Greenberg (Ric Evans photo)

With hands gloved in white cotton, Pitt senior Michael Sechler gently lifts a page of yellowed parchment and passes a magnifying glass over its cramped lines of text. The language on the parchment is convoluted and arcane, the letters like magical runes, as though written in some ancient code. His eyes trace the curves of individual letters that loop and glide with hairpin turns. His magnifying lens raises the letters off the page, as if to extract their meaning from molecules of centuries-old ink. He’s trying to read the antique script, but his hands won’t stop trembling. He knows he holds a page of history created nearly 500 years ago—a document touched and modified by King Henry VIII.

His research partner, Janelle Greenberg, leans in for a look over his shoulder as the two sit at a long table in the British Library’s Manuscripts Reading Room. The pair’s eyes linger on the document’s margins, tracing jagged zigzag patterns contrasting with elegant, descending curves penned by the hand of the infamous monarch who ruled Britain from 1509 to 1547. During his reign, he ordered the death of two of his six wives and caused a rift in Christianity that still ripples through time.

Together, the researchers struggle to read the king’s writing in the manuscript room’s silence. Greenberg is a Pitt history professor, and Sechler is a history student and research colleague. They traveled more than 3,500 miles from Pitt to London in their quest for answers to intriguing questions about centuries-old English law.

When Greenberg thinks of the thousands of records documenting British civilization stored here, she has to catch her breath. And just the sight of Henry VIII’s handwriting brings a flush to Sechler’s cheeks and a nervous quiver to his hands.

“It’s thrilling,” Greenberg says. “It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. These are documents the archbishops of Canterbury and the kings of England touched.”

Greenberg and Sechler have two weeks to pore over the rare contents of the mammoth library, accumulating new information for their shared research.

And their experience isn’t unique at Pitt. They’re just one example of the many research partnerships between faculty and undergraduate students.

At most universities, this level of intense, original research is reserved for graduate students. Here, though, undergraduate students routinely engage in vital research with faculty members in many disciplines, including the sciences, medicine, engineering, history, and political science.

“Our students have access to some of the top researchers in their fields and get to work with scholars who truly are on the cutting edge of their disciplines,” says Patricia E. Beeson, interim vice provost for undergraduate studies and vice provost for gradute studies.

She adds that, because Pitt is a major research university, undergraduates have opportunities to participate in high-level research, including access to the University’s medical school and its UPMC clinical complex. These research partnerships take many forms. Some students work with faculty members for just one semester; others tackle projects for several years. Some undergrads receive academic credit for research during the school year; others simply want noncredit projects to gain research experience. Some are satisfying degree requirements; others seek stipends to conduct extra-credit research. Certain programs refer students to faculty members and research projects; in other cases, students are entrepreneurial and seek out noted faculty or connect with professors after taking classes with them. In all of these ways and more, undergraduate-faculty research partnerships thrive on and off campus.

  Wagner and Drewencki (Ric Evans photo)

Laura Drewencki is under pressure. She must condense hundreds of hours of lab work into one precise thesis. But even in a bustling research lab, Drewencki—a senior majoring in neuroscience—maintains a quiet confidence. She’s so mature and stalwart that Amy Wagner, a physician and assistant professor in the School of Medicine, has to remind herself that Drewencki is an undergraduate.

In her freshman year, Drewencki, now 21, contacted the University’s First Experiences in Research program, which teamed her to work with Wagner, whose research interests include brain injuries and thought-process disorders. Pursuing premedical studies, Drewencki figured the experience would help her learn fundamental research skills. She didn’t realize that she’d soon be immersed in a complex research project.

Initially, the freshman was paired with a more experienced student to learn concepts and processes in basic research. Within a year, though, Drewencki was involved in a signficant study on the long-term use of the drug Ritalin to treat traumatic brain injuries in rats. Now, Drewencki’s hard-earned data have produced results that are likely to spur additional research, possibly leading to a new treatment for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. So far, Wagner, Drewencki, and others involved in the project hypothesize that daily use of Ritalin may improve brain function after such injuries.

Beyond the potential benefits of the research itself, these projects also help students decide whether a career in research is the right path for them. In some situations, the experience helps undergrads make the decision to enter graduate school, medical school, or law school.

“It’s a chance for them to take a hard look at themselves and say, ‘This is what I want to do,’” says Wagner, an award-winning researcher in physical medicine and rehabilitation who mentors undergraduates, medical students, and resident physicians. She also conducts research on traumatic brain injuries in Pitt’s Safar Center for Resuscitation Research. For her, even if students only learn about their limitations during their research experiences, the projects are successful.

Bem Atim can relate. The senior civil engineering student wasn’t sure what to expect when he began his research internship last summer in the School of Engineering’s Watkins-Haggart Structural Engineering Laboratory.

He envisioned lab coats and strict routine. What he found were steel-toed boots and spontaneous problem solving.

Atim remembers being a bit tense. The lab can be an intimidating space, with its cavernous testing facility and a 10-ton, radio-controlled bridge crane. He wanted to prove to the graduate students and faculty that he belonged there.

It was in that facility where Atim collaborated on research that may ultimately lead to stronger, safer structures. His research mentor, Professor Kent Harries, is an expert in the design and construction of buildings and high-rises, including the use of nontraditional materials. Harries, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, has authored more than 80 articles on these and related topics. But Harries also takes the time to work with undergraduate students—he estimates nearly two dozen in the past decade—encouraging them to explore new possibilities in their academic and professional careers.

The 21-year-old Atim participated in studies involving the strength of concrete beams—the building blocks of large structures. The beams contain steel rebar to make them stronger, but the long, skinny rods typically can’t extend beyond 40 feet—otherwise, they’re too difficult to transport and maneuver on a construction site. So, engineers look for new, sturdier ways to connect the rebar in the beams.

  Atim (left) and Harries (Ric Evans photo)

Atim conducted tension tests on as many as 40 steel specimens, examining what it would take to break apart a rebar connection, recording how the connections failed, and summarizing their performance. Later, he helped test the strength of steel rebar connections in a number of 16-foot long, 10-inch-by-6-inch-thick concrete beams. Using a large machine, Harries’ team kept adding loads to the center of the beam until the beam broke.

Suddenly, Atim realized that at the core of the experiment was the deflection theory—a concept he had studied since his sophomore year and knew well. The theory can be used to predict how much a beam will sag or bend under a certain amount of weight before the beam breaks.

After years of attempting to envision what he had read in textbooks, Atim expected the beam to bend just an inch. Instead, the team placed 4,400 pounds at the middle of the beam, causing it to bend more than 8 inches. As the beam broke apart, Atim saw the deflection theory in action. His enthusiasm for the research project skyrocketed.

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of an undergraduate research experience is how it looks on a résumé or a graduate school application. Wagner, who interviews candidates for Pitt’s medical school, believes that students who have substantial research experience have an edge in the admissions process. Harries agrees that research experience is a great résumé builder, and he notes that it’s unlikely an engineering student will win a graduate fellowship without it.

The pluses are evident on the student side of the undergraduate-faculty research partnership, but what do faculty members gain from the experience? Minimally, undergraduates bring an extra set of hands to understaffed projects and laboratories—and, often, says Beeson, the students deliver research on a par with graduate students.

Undergraduates are motivated by the opportunity to participate in the process of discovery with real outcomes of scientific value, and many faculty—including Greenberg, Harries, and Wagner—become lasting mentors for their undergrad protégés.

But Beeson doesn’t expect—or even want—every undergraduate student to participate in a research project. “I think it is important, however, for every Pitt student to have some intense academic experience outside the traditional classroom setting,” she says, “to help them integrate and apply new skills and knowledge in different settings—be it undergraduate research, an internship, or a study-abroad experience.”

Atim has done a bit of comparison shopping in this regard. A year before his research experience with Harries, he completed a summer internship with a corporation in the Pittsburgh area, coordinating small projects. Two years and two distinct experiences later, Atim says research is more appealing to him, and he’s considering going to graduate school.

Drewencki—who is now a senior at Pitt—says her research experience not only validated her plan to pursue medical school, but also steered her toward neuroscience, an area she hadn’t considered before working with Wagner.

Michael Sechler—the student enraptured by King Henry VIII’s letter writing—plans to pursue a doctorate in history and a law degree, influenced by his Pitt mentor and their joint research.

His collaboration with Professor Greenberg started during his sophomore year, after he took her University Honors College seminar on English law. Sechler needed to complete a research project to fulfill a degree requirement. Greenberg encouraged him to study the 13th-century English jurist Henry de Bracton, who is notable for his detailed writings about English law and customs. Historical figures have cited Bracton’s work in their own legal arguments.

Last summer, Sechler spent hours culling the Collectanea Satis Copiosa, a collection of historical documents used to legitimize Henry VIII’s break with the Roman Catholic church. The material contains the king’s handwritten comments in the margins. Sechler, who has a limited, but growing, understanding of Latin, looked for text like Rex habet superiorem, deum scilicet (The king hath a superior, namely God), a phrase associated with Bracton’s earlier, seminal work.

The student’s research into Bracton evolved into two award-winning papers, one of which he presented at the Midwest Conference on British Studies last fall. “I don’t think I’ve been to a national conference where an undergraduate student presented a paper, nestled among scholars,” says mentor Greenberg, who accompanied Sechler to the conference and presented her own paper. He’ll graduate in April with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and a Bachelor of Philosophy degree in politics-philosophy and economics.

In the quiet of the British Library, Sechler and Greenberg slowly scan fragile pieces of parchment. The undergraduate still marvels that he’s here in London, touching fragments of ancient English law.

After logging another eight-hour day, the student and his mentor leave the library and take a stroll past some historical sites related to their research. They meander past Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, then take a break on a bench in Russell Square. Suddenly, Greenberg realizes that, years ago, she sat on this same bench with her own mentor, the late Corinne Comstock Weston, a history professor who instilled in Greenberg a sense of discipline and a love of scholarship.

“She made me a historian,” Greenberg tells Sechler. He nods, understanding.



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