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Old Gold & Black

Old Gold & Black

Wofford hosts inaugural Southern Conference Undergraduate Research Forum


By: Sarah Madden, Senior Writer

Over 100 students from all 10 Southern Conference institutions presented at the inaugural Southern Conference Undergraduate Research Forum (SURF), hosted at Wofford Oct. 28-29. Seventeen Wofford students presented at the event.

Topics spanned across multiple departments, including presentations on whether mathematicians could find the most efficient plan to tour Disney World, how pedestrians and cyclists impact the capacity of roundabouts and how drawing and writing affect mood. A concerto rewritten as a piano reduction was performed and a chapter of a student’s novel was read.

Dr. Carol Wilson, Wofford professor of English and coordinator of academic advising, was the plenary speaker for the event. She spoke of the SoCon’s dedication to recognizing the relationship of academics and athletics, including the positive influence of both rivals and teammates.

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“As I’ve anticipated this weekend, I’ve loved thinking about the word ‘rival.’ As is ‘teammate,’ it’s a word of interconnection, a phrase for a relationship we SoCon members with long experience in athletic competition understand very well,” she said. “In athletics and in academics, we claim our rivals as intensely as we claim our teammates, insisting that a history of competition is one measure of our own excellence, using it as a metric for our own goal-setting.”

Equally important to Wilson was the fact that this conference chose to celebrate student-athletes and the interaction between academics and athletics.

“[With] this academic research forum, sponsored by an athletic conference, [we are] purposefully finding connections where others may see conflict, and celebrating academic opportunities for our students made possible by athletic relationships,” she said. “In these choices, we are creating and acting within a narrative of possibility. In this re-visioning, we insist that athletics and academics share goals and values… And we insist on emphasizing the creative collaboration that they foster.”

The idea for the forum originated in the SoCon group of faculty athletic representatives at one of its meetings, says Dr. Jameica Hill, Professor of chemistry and chair/faculty athletics representative.

“I am so proud that Wofford belongs to an athletic conference that not only values, but chooses to promote the academics of its member institutions. This inaugural research forum is a definite reflection of that,” she says.

Hill worked with Dr. Stacey Hettes, associate professor of biology and associate provost for faculty development, over the past year to plan and host the event. Wofford was chosen as the inaugural host institution partly due to the fact that SoCon headquarters are in Spartanburg and Wofford is centrally located to other SoCon institutions. According to Hettes, Wofford will host for the next two years, after which the forum will rotate through institutions so that other students get the opportunity to experience hosting a conference.

Hettes points out that there are multiple aspects of this event that made it an innovative idea: “It’s not often that an athletic conference organizes intellectual development in our students. It’s something we talk about a lot in the southern conference: that our athletes are students first. This was a good opportunity for the SoCon to showcase that ethos,” she says. “The other piece I think made it unique was the clear expectation that none of the presenters had to be athletes. There was no requirement, but there was no exclusion, either. This was meant to be as much an outreach to non-athletes as it was to athletes.”

“This forum will definitely mark the SoCon as a conference that doesn’t just talk about academics, but promotes it as well,” says Hill. “An athletic conference-wide research forum allows the schools to ‘compete’ against each other in a friendly competition with their [athletic] rivals, which builds academic relationships at the same time.”

Senior Katherine Howell, who read from a portion of her historical fiction novel and was one of the few performance-based presentations, says that it was encouraging and inspiring to interact with students from other organizations and learn from peers about a wide range of subjects.

“My background is in the humanities, so it was nice to be able to experience research from other areas of study,” she says. “I liked interacting with students from different colleges; they were all very kind, complimentary and the sense of mutual support that all the students had for each other’s work, even though we came from different backgrounds and disciplines, was really interesting.”

Howell presented her work at the conference’s opening session in Old Main—her “comfort zone”—and says that it meant a lot to her: “It was intimidating to share something so deeply personal, since I haven’t shared my work with many people, but I felt like I was presenting something professional instead of ‘just’ the work I’d been writing in my dorm room. It made my work real, and made me even more excited for my future career as a creative writer.”

Rebecca McGregor, senior psychology and Spanish double major who presented with fellow senior Annie McDermott in the learning and education category, says that to her, the forum was good for STEM majors to see research from other departments.

“I think it’s important that STEM majors understand that there is such a thing as music research, literature research, educational research—for students to realize there are other students in other departments doing really cool things that are of the same intensity as the kind of work [STEM majors] do within their departments,” she says.

McDermott, a biology major on a pre-med track, points out that while scientific research is often emphasized in the academic research world, at Wofford those research opportunities can be limited.

“We are not a large university with large labs, where there is a culture of undergraduate research, and so it’s rare for students to do STEM research in-house at Wofford. I’ve had to go do research at big institutions to understand what that looks like, and so if we can put research on the radars of students at Wofford, that would be a really good thing for us,” she says. “Right now we really don’t have more than a handful of undergraduates doing serious, presentable, publishable research at Wofford, and they should be able to do that.”

McDermott believes this is largely due to Wofford’s lack of infrastructure to support undergraduate research.

“We certainly have the environment of accepting and using research, but we don’t have the structure, technology or materials… while there is a lot of good work going on at Wofford, we are lacking in the research area from a science perspective,” she says. “Wofford is very good at supporting its students in pursuing outside research, and it’s a great school [that prepares its students for these programs], but we have to go out of house.”

In the future, Hill hopes that the forum develops to include more student-athlete participation as well as more participation from graduate schools in the graduate school information session, which students reacted positively to in feedback.

Wilson hopes that a simultaneous arts festival can develop in the future, and Hettes would like to see a long-term trend of the conference helping drive students in humanities and social studies to think about collaborating with faculty members.


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