Student Research Conference ignites passion for world-changers

On March 25, Western Kentucky University’s Student Research Council hosted the 47th Annual Student Research Conference. This event showcased the scholarly activities of WKU graduate and undergraduate students through oral paper presentations, talks, exhibits, poster presentations and other displays of their academic endeavors.

Students present their research findings to conference attendees

The conference is designed to share student work with the public and the university community, and there is also an added competitive aspect. A selected panel of judges made their way through the student presentations to determine 59 session winners who walked away with a $50 gift card to the WKU Store provided by the WKU Fund.

Judges score student presentations

Gatton Academy seniors Katherine Ashley of Corbin, Kentucky, and Presley Henshaw of Morganfield, Kentucky were among the scholars presenting their research. They shared a current literature review on the resilience of traumatic brain injury survivors. They found in recent years there has been an exponential growth in research done centered on war veterans; however, very few studies looked at adolescents and the general public.

Gatton Academy seniors Katherine Ashley and Presley Henshaw present their research findings alongside Dr. Jean Neils-Strunjas

These two young women plan on continuing their research and college education at WKU in the Fall. They aim to expand the scope of the traumatic brain injury research field to incorporate a wider diversity of individuals and experiences and provide a more holistic understanding of these injuries.

WKU junior Sam Culton of Muhlenberg, Kentucky focused on the environmental sciences. Culton spent the previous summer in South Africa researching the seemingly unexplainable population decrease of the indigenous Knobthorn tree within the Balule Nature Reserve.

WKU junior Samuel Culton presents his research findings

He explained that many of the locals believe the decrease was due to elephants knocking them over for their fruit, but through his research he found the real culprit to be the Smith’s Bush Squirrel. Culton conducted an experiment where he placed a brass thumbtack in 50 nuts and scattered them around the reserve. Later, he came back with a metal detector to find the thumbtacks left behind while the nuts had been eaten rather than cached, or buried, by the squirrels for new trees to grow. He believes this is due to an ongoing drought happening in South Africa. The squirrels are eating the nuts immediately rather than burying them for later

Culton hopes the research data he has left with the reserve will help them to continue working towards bringing back these trees.

The conference is interdisciplinary and featured fine arts too. Senior Elizabeth Offman of Glasgow, Kentucky filled her poster presentation with images depicting the long hours and frustrations that go into creating a work of art. When asked why she wanted to present a methodological poster alongside math and science research, she expressed that she wanted to show people that fine art, too, is a long process where everything is done with purpose, not just because it looks pretty.

WKU senior Elizabeth Offman stands alongside her presentation poster and original works of art

Halfway through the presentations, Dr. Karen Oates presented the keynote address to conference attendees concerning Science in the Public Interest. Dr. Oates is a Professor of Biochemistry and the Dean of Arts & Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. She focused her address on the concern of how teachers of the sciences need to explore how to transform an inert classroom environment into an active, participatory space by tapping into personal engagement. Dr. Oates stressed the idea that if we are going to educate students, we need to think beyond a 45-course and 120-hour curriculum.

Dr. Karen Oates gives the keynote address concerning “Science in the Public Interest”

She shared a personal example. One semester she offered a course titled “Cell Biology,” and found that students held back in classroom discussion and that there was a general lack of interest. She decided the following semester to change the course title to “Cancer.” Dr. Oates immediately noticed a change of passion her students had and the quality of work they were able to produce. The two classes were identical in content, but because of the course title change, students were able to relate to the course material to on a personal level.