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International Presence: Three U.Va. Undergrads Present Work at International Conference

Dec. 14,  2006 -- The invitation came out of the blue. The three Harrison fellows — all fourth-years — were deep into their summer plans, and each was looking forward to a busy semester ahead.

Rachael Beaton, a double major in astronomy and physics and mathematics, was in her hometown of Brights, Va., preparing for a short stint as a counselor at a music camp. She planned to spend one week in September at Arizona’s Kitt Peak National Observatory, where she would continue her research on the newly discovered bar structure of the Andromeda galaxy. Ross Baird, a politics major from Atlanta, was researching voter participation in his home state, an especially timely subject for the fall political season. And Lindsay Friedman, a history major in the Distinguished Majors program and a studio art minor from Philadelphia, was traveling in Spain with her family. Her busy fall semester would be capped off with a trip to New Delhi and Mumbai, India, to research the history of British and Indian women’s dress in colonial India.

Mark Caldwell, who was serving as program coordinator in U.Va.’s Center for Undergraduate Excellence, cast his net far and wide to reach the three students with an offer they could hardly refuse: an allexpenses-paid trip in late September to Australia’s University of Queensland to make presentations at the 2006 Universitas 21 conference on undergraduate research.

For Beaton, Baird and Friedman, it would be their first trip to Australia and a singular opportunity to meet their undergrad peers from around the world. But the trip also posed a challenge.

Rather than having a full academic year to flesh out their respective research projects, they each had to prepare a cogent, 20-minute presentation by late September. Nonetheless, they seemed to take the pressure in stride. “The deadline made me focus my efforts more and ultimately produced better research,” Baird said.

HIT THE GROUND RUNNING

Despite the wear and tear of a halfwayaround-the-world journey, the U.Va. contingent – Friedman, Baird and Beaton, with Caldwell as the faculty representative – adjusted quickly to the University of Queensland scene.

“We hit the ground running when we got there,” Caldwell said. “It was exciting because it’s rare that you have the opportunity to cross disciplines and exchange ideas with students from many other countries.

It can also be a humbling experience for students because they find themselves surrounded by other, very bright students.”

The 20-minute talks covered a broad range of disciplines, from chemistry to the arts and medicine to politics.

A primary aim of the U21 conference was to encourage interdisciplinary learning and the cross-fertilization of ideas. Judging by Baird’s experience, the goal was realized. In the Q&A session following his presentation on Georgia voter participation, he was surprised – and intrigued – by observations from some students in other disciplines. “A math major said my work in politics made him think of a Latin square, like a Sudoku. I had never thought of that. Also, some statistics students helped me find a better way to prove my observations. The experience got me thinking on a completely different plane academically.”

Yet, for some students, speaking to peers outside one’s own discipline posed challenges. Beaton was a case in point. In thinking about how to present her research on the structure of the Andromeda Galaxy, one of the Milky Way’s galactic neighbors, she felt apprehensive. “I was really nervous because some of the earlier science presentations had been too technical or too obtuse. I had to provide a conceptual basis and analogies that were understandable to someone without a science background.”

And yet, Beaton said, hearing about research in other fields was what appealed most to her about the conference. “There was a presentation about medical surveys on patient diagnoses that I found fascinating. What I enjoyed the most at the conference was learning about things I don’t get to experience very often.”

Friedman, who was one of only a few student presenters from the arts, had a different perspective on the conference, “ I viewed it as a chance to share my passion for the history of dress and test out my theories and ideas as I prepare to write my thesis this spring.” Her research aims to recover the experiences of British and Indian women living in 19th century India through an exploration of their relationships to dress and textiles, and as a result,
each other.

But for Friedman, the richest exchanges came during less formal moments with her peers. “You’re having dinner with a group of students, just like you do at UVA, yet here one student is from Shanghai, another is from Sweden and another from Glasgow. It was great to be able to connect with undergrads from around the world, all of us at similar points in our academic careers and lives.”

THE LONG VIEW

Once the presentations had wrapped up, the students relaxed and visited local sights, including North Stradbroke Island, famous for its hiking trails, white beaches and spectacular views. Standing on Point Lookout was especially memorable for both Friedman and Caldwell. As if the steep cliffs weren’t picturesque enough, Caldwell said, they were excited to see dolphins diving in the clear blue water and, farther out, humpback whales also made an appearance. “Sitting on that cliff was one of the best moments of my life,” Friedman recalled. “I was so grateful to be there.”

In the context of the students’ careers at U.Va., the Universitas 21 undergraduate research conference may have been brief, but its impact is likely to be felt for a long time. “It was, day for day, possibly the best week I’ve had at the University of Virginia,” Baird said.

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