Research at the Finish Line
At the Powell Student Research Conference,
months of hard work culminate in a single day.
Story by MAC McCORMICK ’04
Heather Kwoka ’06 (above left) presents her study on how perfectionist tendencies
develop in adolescent boys and girls. David Hibbard, visiting assistant professor
of psychology, was her advisor on the project. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
Everyone is up early, for a Saturday. At just before 9 a.m., a lot of tired-looking
people in nice clothes have filled the atrium of the Center for Natural Sciences.
Many, if not most, are busy making last-minute changes to the posters they’ve propped
up on easels, trying to find a shaky truce with gravity so they actually stay up.
Some of these were finished hours ago, others have been ready for weeks. Some — more
than you might expect — are awaiting some finishing touches.
The John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference can be likened to many academic
rites of passage. The SAT. The GRE. Final exams. The processes are all the same, more
or less: prepare for weeks, stay up late cramming, and get up early on that special
morning, eyes fuzzy and fingers a little numb, hoping you have just enough energy
to get you through until it’s over.
After this day, for some, it really is over. Finals can’t compare, since the exams
only cover a single semester. For many seniors, this is the culmination of all four
years. Countless hours have been spent researching and working closely with faculty
members as they put together their one, big project. Needless to say, there’s a little
The presentations have changed a bit since the conference was founded in 1990. A look
around the hall reveals an enormous variety, not only in academic discipline, but
Economics Professor Mike Seeborg, who was on the 2006 planning committee and served
as its chair in the past, explains that when the conference started out, “it was science
majors, mostly. Then social sciences and humanities started getting more involved
— so (now) science is just one of the disciplines.” Alongside the academic presentations,
the students of the Ames School of Art now give talks about their senior exhibitions
in the afternoon, while the official end of the conference is a performance of seniors’
work at the School of Music. “That’s my favorite part,” Seeborg says. “They have three
composition students who come in and talk about their original compositions, and then
they have them performed — usually for the first time.”
The approach has changed, too. While many students stick to the traditions of the
conference — hard, scientific research; hard, scientific presentations — others have
been more playful. A poster on animal behavior is shaped like a dog. Another poster
— an anthropological study of exotic dancers — is a sultry silhouette of a woman in
a Bettie Page pinup pose.
With the expansion of scope comes the expansion of the conference, as well. “Our numbers
are up considerably this year,” says Seeborg, “largely thanks to Mike Theune.” Assistant
English Professor Theune, who chaired the planning committee for 2006, has brought
a new energy to the conference that translates to bigger numbers: 147 participants
signed up to present this year, topping last year’s record by more than a third.
* * *
At 9:15 a.m., the first session of poster presentations is underway. Students stand
near their projects, waiting for curious visitors — often parents, and faculty from
other departments — to ask questions. Everything goes smoothly, for the most part.
One presenter, Adam Miller ’06, has a poster on a topic to which everyone can relate
today: stage fright. With all of the pressure involved, it’s understandable that students
would be a little nervous. Miller, whose project compared the stage-fright levels
of students who seek out theatre projects to students who are not theatrically inclined,
asked his study’s participants to rate their own stage fright on a scale from one
From looking around, it’s clear almost everyone at the conference is spiking high
on this anxiety scale.
And where is Miller on the scale? “I’m at about a two right now. For me, this is a
conversation. I have conversations every day. ... The big fear (for people) is messing
up,” he adds.
Could it be that the level of participants’ fears correlates with how much time and
energy they put into their projects? Though Miller hasn’t made a study of it, it seems
like solid thesis. If true, it’s a safe bet that those experiencing the most stress
at the moment are the ones presenting research honors projects.
As the University’s course catalog states, “The University encourages qualified (seniors)
to pursue projects of original research under the guidance of a faculty member.” Many
posters and oral presentations given at the Powell conference come from these honors
projects, a process that is a huge time commitment both for students and faculty.
To qualify for research honors, a student’s project requires not only a faculty advisor,
but a panel of faculty members who critique the thesis. As Seeborg describes, students
doing an original research project will “form a committee of four people, and work
with that committee toward research honors during their senior year. Most of the work
is done with the chair of the committee, but there’s a lot of one-on-one commitment.”
To help give the project an interdisciplinary aspect, one of the panel members must
be from outside the department of the student’s major.
Professor of Economics Mike Seeborg (shown above right) advised several students on
their projects and served on this year’s conference planning committee. The event’s
namesake, John Wesley Powell, taught at IWU before leading historic research expeditions,
many involving students. (
Photo by Marc Featherly)
While candidates for research honors usually meet at least once a week with their
advisors, non-honors students who present at the conference can set their own schedules,
and the nature of each mentor-to-student relationship is very individualized.
Miller recalls his relationship with his advisor, Education Instructor Leah Nillas:
“She was an excellent sounding board for my ideas.”
Bridget O’Connor ’06 had similar support from Associate Professor of English Mary
Ann Bushman, who advised O’Connor on her honors project, entitled “The Ghost of King
Hamlet: Catholic in Purgatory or Protestant from Hell?”
“(Her) role was directional in the sense that every time we met, she would come up
with new ideas, new areas to research, and almost brand-new theses,” O’Connor says.
“Dr. Bushman provided feedback on my work and … advised me in a way to make sure I
did not miss any important areas of research, and kept me thinking about (Hamlet) in different ways.”
In other instances, particularly in the sciences, professors will invite students
to work on their own research, which leads to valuable experience for the student,
and an able assistant for the professor. “Students sometimes will present joint research,
says Seeborg. In some instances, this can lead to publication in academic journals
and other professional outlets, which is considered a remarkable achievement for an
* * *
As the first poster session continues, a larger-than-usual poster teeters and falls
under its own cumbersome weight. Its owner makes a dive to save it. “We have other
easels,” Theune offers.
Theune stands near the food table, sipping crucial coffee. On Miller’s anxiety scale,
he’s probably around a 3. There’s not a lot to do now, but there’s always the chance
that something will go wrong. Still, thanks to the many staff members who helped out
with the process, there’s room for him to relax. Theune is particularly grateful to
Pat Neustel, administrative assistant to the provost, who helped coordinate a long
list of details. “It would have been impossible without her,” says Theune.
Aside from the occasional toppled poster, the scene is tranquil. The poster session
is wrapping up as professors pose some last-minute questions to participants, who
seem more relaxed than they did a few hours ago. “The way everything is coming together
has me feeling good,” Theune says with a smile. Then he moves to the microphone to
make an announcement: it’s time for the first round of oral presentations. Tension
While the poster presentations offer more flexibility for students to stretch their
legs or take a restroom break, the oral presentations are more formal — and more nerve-wracking:
15 minutes each, just the presenting student and his or her audience, with communication
Oral presentations give students the chance to go into much greater depth in explaining
their research. Big projects with complex findings are par for the course, and while
much of the work was born in study carrels and labs, others found themselves doing
research in more exotic settings.
For example, anthropology major Adam Cannon ’07 spent several weeks in rural Belize
studying two Mennonite communities: one that had chosen a more traditional, aesthetic
lifestyle and the other a more progressive, modern way of life. To better relate to
the members of the first community, Cannon grew a beard, helped to clear brush by
hand, and got a chance to try out their traditional transportation methods: “They
travel (to town) by horse and buggy,” he explains. “It takes about three hours — I
had the pleasure of experiencing that.
“It was fun,” Cannon sums up his experience — a reminder that, for all the tedious
aspects involved in doing first-rate research, the thrill of discovery is often more
than adequate compensation.
At the conclusions of the morning’s oral presentations, professors, students, and
guests convene at a luncheon in the Memorial Center’s Main Lounge. For the morning
presenters it’s a time to finally relax; their afternoon counterparts will soon be
on the hot seat. Amid the hum of conversation and clinking silverware on china, Professor
Theune takes the microphone once more to introduce both President Wilson and the conference’s
keynote speaker, Robert Sternberg, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts
“I think this is an aptly named conference,” President Wilson tells the gathered crowd
during his brief remarks. “John Wesley Powell came to Illinois Wesleyan as a young
faculty member right after the Civil War. … He, too, was a great mentor and collaborator
with his students. In 1867 he took three students on an expedition of the West, which
was the first time undergraduate students accompanied a professor on field research.”
Perhaps some of the students only know of Powell from the seated bronze sculpture
in his likeness that sits in The Ames Library rotunda, but they nod as they listen
to Wilson’s account of the historic trip. It was Powell, they learn, who came up with
the University’s motto, “Scientia et Sapientia,” which translates from Latin as “Knowledge
and Wisdom” — a reminder that the two aren’t the same, but that the former is needed
to achieve the latter.
* * *
Lauren Couch ’06 (above) displayed and spoke about her artwork at the School of Art’s
B.F.A. Senior Critique Honors presentation. Senior music compositions have also been
included among the conference events in recent years. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
In its 17th year, the conference has come a long way. Looking at the brochures from
previous years, one can see a physical manifestation of its growth — from the slim
pamphlet of its inaugural year to this year’s heavy, book-length program, which is
actually thicker than the campus directory. How much bigger will it get, though?
“I have the feeling the conference will grow a bit more, then find its level,” says
Theune. With this growth, however, comes the problem of finding room for all of the
presenters. With this year’s crowd, the science center’s atrium is nearly full. Too
many more may require a change of venue.
Even with a successful playbook in hand, there are always ways to improve the conference.
“We’re thinking about changing the format and bringing in alumni who have gone out
and done interesting things,” says Seeborg. However, “we (don’t) want to keep it focused
on external researchers; we want to keep it focused on the students.”
In the end, the John Wesley Powell Student Research Conference gives students a chance
to show each other and their professors what, exactly, they’ve been laboring on for
all these months. It brings together all of their hard work, their time spent researching
alone and with faculty members, and gives them a taste of what they might expect should
they choose to pursue graduate school. “Even if they don’t, it’s a great culminating
experience where they pull everything together into a single project,” says Seeborg.
“For most students it’s sort of the ‘last hurrah’ of their undergraduate research.”
At day’s end — after the second set of poster presentations are finished, after the
art students present their exhibitions and the music students’ compositions are performed,
and as parents take their exhausted sons and daughters out for a celebratory dinner
— there is a feeling of finality. Not the end of the story, but an important chapter.
As Robert Sternberg said earlier, during his keynote address, “If you really want
to do something, the chances are pretty good that you can do it. There are always
stumbling blocks along the way … but if you want to do great research, or if you want
to do great in life period, the lesson is finding what you love to do matters.” The
students who presented at this year's John Wesley Powell Conference may not yet have
found what they love to do — at least not precisely — but their direction toward that
goal has grown a little clearer on this day.