Inside Mizzou: Show Me Research & Creative Works

Illustration of atom with MU nucleus surrounded by icons representing the arts, humanities and sciences

Inside Mizzou extraTo hear even more stories on research and creative works from our extraordinary students, listen to this bonus storytelling feature called “Inside Mizzou extra.”  Five students working on projects across the arts, humanities and science give us a window into their hands-on pursuits.

April 16, 2019

Our students have always been bold risk takers who seek discovery and innovation every day. Whether they study the skeletal anatomy of mammals in our labs here in the U.S., exhibit photography on the streets of London or develop their own Missouri farms, Mizzou students epitomize excellence as they work to generate global solutions.

Join Chancellor Cartwright for this week’s Inside Mizzou podcast where he talks with three undergraduates in our McNair Scholars Program. Lexi Wilkinson is a senior studying psychology and English, Cole Diggins is a junior studying soil resource management and Cosette Tomita is a senior studying chemistry. We discuss the impact undergraduate research and scholarship has had on their collegiate careers and highlight the ways Mizzou supports these opportunities.

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[00:00:09] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community.

Moderator: [00:00:27] Today’s episode is called “Show Me Research & Creative Works.” At Mizzou, students take our Missouri “Show Me” charge seriously, especially when it comes to undergraduate research and scholarship. They experiment in our labs, create in our studios and tests in our fields to generate global solutions — from drought to the economy, cultural understanding to health care. Joining Chancellor Cartwright to talk about the impact undergraduate research and scholarship has on the Mizzou community are three McNair Scholars: Lexi Wilkinson, a senior studying psychology and English who is working under Dr. Laura King in the Department of Psychological Sciences; Cole Diggins, a junior studying soil resource management who is working under Dr. Stephen Anderson in the College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resources; and Cosette Tomita, a senior studying chemistry and a member of the Mizzou softball team who is working under Dr. Susan Lever in the Department of Chemistry. Thank you all for being here. First of all, I mentioned that you all are McNair Scholars. Can you tell us a little bit about the program?

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:01:31] So, McNair is a federally-funded research program that is currently celebrating its 30th year on Mizzou’s campus. It provides invaluable resources for underrepresented and first-generation college students on preparing for a doctoral study. It provides workshops to guide you through the application process for graduate school and also on how to prepare research papers, and also allows you to take a GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) prep class to prepare for those exams. Yeah, it contributes to the innovative activities that we have on this campus and really facilitates student-faculty relationships and the mentorship models on campus.

Moderator: [00:02:24] That’s awesome. Thirty years is an amazing achievement. So, Cosette and Cole, do you mind telling us a little bit about your journey as researchers and scholars and kind of what made you take on your specific projects and how the McNair program facilitated your research.

Cole Diggins: [00:02:39] Yeah, I’ll start. You know, the McNair Program really helped to provide me with a bunch of unknown sources that I didn’t really know were available to me. As a first-generation college student, I wasn’t very aware of what was available as far as graduate studies, and by being in the McNair Program, it’s just taken me from something where, you know, I didn’t really know what was going on and what I needed to do, and it’s really structured that to bring me in on how to write a research paper and how to go through the workings of getting into graduate school. It’s been extremely beneficial to me and just to help me to know what I needed to accomplish and how to accomplish it.

Moderator: [00:03:24] How about you, Cosette?

Cosette Tomita: [00:03:25] McNair really provided me with sort of more structure than my previous research project was. It provided funding and allowed me to create a more robust project with my faculty mentor Dr. Susan Lever. We’re currently working on a pet radioligand for a Sigma-2 receptor in the brain, so I got that chance to work with radioactivity, which wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for McNair.

Moderator: [00:03:52] That’s awesome. Chancellor Cartwright, why is undergraduate research and scholarship so important to the student experience, and how does Mizzou support that?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:04:02] I think you heard it from Cole, Cosette and Lexi very well — is that the McNair Program provides some funding, but most importantly it has the components that really emphasize success. And that is you get connected with a faculty member; you’re doing research that they’re conducting right now; you’re right on the cutting edge; you are able then to meet other students that have like interests, along with the faculty member; and it’s that connection to somebody who you then start to realize that you can do it. In many ways it demystifies the faculty member. Sometimes, you know, students think faculty members are perfect and that they’re geniuses, and many of them are, but at the same time they’re just like these great students that we have. And having students have that opportunity to see that they can do it is what makes this program so successful.

Moderator: [00:05:03] So, a big part of conducting research and scholarship is learning to deal with failure. Can you tell us about a time where you had to overcome failure and how it further shaped you as a researcher, Chancellor Cartwright?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:05:13] Oh me? Oh. Alright, you’re talking about me. You know, failure is a big part of what you do in research, and I’m sure maybe they already have some examples of that. But you have a lot of times when you’re working on a project and you’re trying various things and you just keep trying, and you never know which one of those is going to actually work out. The one that I’d like to tell is that we got an award for something that they called one of top innovations that will change the way we manufacture, and quite honestly, when we first made that breakthrough, we didn’t quite know what happened. My student had been working on a project and kind of did something that you probably shouldn’t do, but it turned out to be revolutionary. So, the great lesson out of that of course is document what you’re doing. Make sure you know what you did so that even if it doesn’t work out quite the way you expect then you can figure out what happened. But yeah, it’s part of it. You have to learn that resilience, and I think that’s part of why undergraduate research is so important and scholarship is so important to our students — is that they then start to realize that it’s OK to make those mistakes. It’s OK to fail, and that it’s all about resilience and your ability to come back. And I think that translates then into when you’re taking classes, when you’re doing other things in life. So, all of this kind of connects together to make for a successful experience in college.

Moderator: [00:06:56] Thank you for sharing that story with us. What about you all? What challenges have you had to overcome with these projects?

Cole Diggins: [00:07:01] Just for myself, something that I had to overcome when I first started research was I never really had — you know, I grew up in a very small town — and I never really had any formal experience in research. And from the faculty-student mentorship that McNair creates between you and your mentor — so for me it would be Dr. Stephen Anderson — I’ve had such a great job working with these top-tier professionals in their field, that the University of Missouri has been able to provide. And he and his graduate student, Salah Alagele, have been able to help me hone my research and the way that I go about doing my research. And they really helped me to develop the skills I need to conduct formal research and make sure that everything is going correctly and that I am working through to do the correct thing in my research and document everything and how to go about that.

Moderator: [00:08:03] Very nice. Lexi, would you like to add to that?

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:08:07] Ok. For me, working with Dr. Laura King has been absolutely amazing. I had been in her lab for about a year before applying to the McNair Program, getting a feel for what she was interested in and realizing that it was something that I could see myself doing in the future. So, I had sat down with her and went over some of my research ideas that aligned with hers in a lot of ways but also kind of diversified. And so, one of the first challenges that we kind of had to overcome in our working relationship was reaching out to collaborators and opening those doors for collaboration. So, that has been a really beneficial step in just my own scholarship and in learning how to navigate those professional relationships and those professional networking experiences.

Moderator: [00:08:57] That sounds like a wonderful opportunity. Cosette, would you like to add anything?

Cosette Tomita: [00:09:01] Sure, yeah. So, chemistry is all about putting two things together and hoping that they’re going to work, right? So, you never know. You could put two things together, and it’s up to the atoms whether they want to interact. And so, for me a lot of my research has been what works, what solving conditions work and overcoming failure on a daily basis and being able to, you know, bounce back from that and not take it as failure. Take it more as, “That doesn’t work, so let me try this instead.” McNair has helped teach me how to deal with failure in the lab a lot.

Moderator: [00:09:40] Well that’s great. What advice would you give to other students who are interested in research and scholarship? Cosette?

Cosette Tomita: [00:09:46] I would say quality over quantity, so it’s not really about what you get done in the time that you’re doing research — it’s what you take away from it. Some people have experiences where they figure out that research isn’t for them and that they would want to do something else or they would want to research a different topic, and that is just as valuable as figuring out that you love research and you want to go on to graduate school. So, I think that would be my biggest piece of advice.

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:10:15] For me, I would say to start conversations with graduate students while you can because I think a lot of students have this view — like the Chancellor said — of faculty being intimidating, these mystical beings that aren’t even human. And so, in my experience I found that graduate students can be a nice bridge for that, especially now that I know that that is something that I want to do — is experience graduate school. Talking to people who are going through that experience, who are a little bit closer to, you know, my peer group than, say, a faculty member has been really beneficial for my experience. So, those are like T.A.’s in your classes, graduate assistants in the organizations that you’re working with and others. We have a fantastic graduate assistant in the McNair office: Johanna Milord. And so, those relationships have been really beneficial, and again demystifying the process and really bringing it down to manageable things. Like, “This is a person that I can talk to about this experience.”

Cole Diggins: [00:11:23] For me, I guess my number one thing that I would want to give advice to other students is that you need to seek out resources that are going to help you to achieve something later on in your academic or your professional research career or whatever it is you’re going to do — really in anything. No matter what it is you’re going to get out what you put into it, and just seek out those different programs and projects like the McNair Program. And also seek out your different professors. You know, the faculty — they’re very approachable. In fact, they enjoy being approached, and it’s something that, you know, just get out of your comfort zone and really go in and speak to them and try to have that conversation because they’re definitely going to help to point you in the right direction to help you excel later on in your professional career.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:15] Yeah, I mean I would agree with that. Faculty really enjoy that opportunity to work directly with the students, and serving as a mentor is one of the biggest honors a faculty member can have. And so, it’s very easy if a student approaches you. You want to be able to be part of that. And the way I look back at it, I’ve mentored a number of students in my career, and I realize how honored I was to have them as part of what I was doing and how much I learned from them. Because each time you bring different people into your lab, they add something to the lab. They add something to whatever, if you’re working on an arts program or, you know, humanities or anything like that they add their experiences, and that brings value to what you’re doing, and it makes you think differently. There’s a huge benefit to the faculty member to be able to engage with such amazing students who are really interested in understanding what does it mean to conduct, to work in any area and to do the scholarship that’s required. So, a great opportunity for everybody. In listening to everything that you’ve been talking about, what I’m curious to know is: How has this experience in the McNair Program changed your career plans?

Cole Diggins: [00:13:35] I’ll kind of go first, since I’m the younger of us in the junior range. For me, going for doctoral study wasn’t really something that I had really thought about before finding the McNair Program. And really sitting there and I first noticed it and I said, “You know, I want to kind of research that.” Then after doing that I decided I wanted to be a part of the McNair Program and pursue that doctoral study in soils, so it’s really been very beneficial to me because it helped me to look past what I was thinking about doing and really see and set a solid goal: “This is what I’m going to do, and this is what I want to do.”

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:14:17] For me, working in the McNair Program and working very closely with Dr. Laura King has had a direct impact on my plans for the future, as I have literally just accepted a PhD offer to the Social Psychology Program here at Mizzou to continue working with her. So, I am beyond excited about that to continue working with her and the graduate students in her lab and just continuing that experience and building myself as a scholar and researcher with someone I already have a very close and beneficial relationship with.

Moderator: [00:14:51] That’s terrific. Congratulations.

Cosette Tomita: [00:14:52] So, for me McNair has really just reaffirmed that I wanted to continue to study chemistry in the future. I’ve currently applied and I’m in the process of choosing a fully funded graduate program, so that really is beneficial that McNair was able to aid me in the whole graduate application process, as far as my personal statement, my CV and all that stuff. It wouldn’t have been possible without them.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:15:19] Congratulations to all of you.

Moderator: [00:15:21] Definitely. Thank you all again for being here today. This has been a wonderful conversation. I know I took so much away from it. One more thing of course before we leave: What did the ocean say to the shore?

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:15:37] Are we not supposed to answer it? I’m sorry.

Moderator: [00:15:40] No, no. Go ahead.

Cole Diggins: [00:15:42] See you later?

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:15:43] Nothing. It just waved.

Moderator: [00:15:45] Yes, Lexi!

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:15:47] She got it?

Moderator: [00:15:47] Yes, thank you!

Lexi Wilkinson: [00:15:48] You’re welcome.

[00:15:58] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major, Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the Columns!