Democracy and Urban Space: URSCA Abroad

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“Does it matter how public space is organized?” was the question asked by Paul Cancilla, ‘16, and Professor Shannan Mattiace of the International Studies program and Political Science department. While this is a question the general public might not think about, Professor Mattiace and Cancilla found that the answer to this question is an important one.

Cancilla and Professor Mattiace conducted research on the role of public space in the democratization of  Mexico as part of Cancilla’s senior capstone project. With funding provided by the Great Lakes College Association (GLCA) and the Class of 1939 fund from Allegheny College, the pair traveled to Mexico City to do this work. While there, Professor Mattiace and Cancilla conducted informal interviews with street vendors and city officials, and observed how people interacted with and utilized the public transportation system. Engaging with the public transportation system for themselves was an important part of the research process for Cancilla and Mattiace, as it allowed them to experience the social norms that dictate how this public space is organized and experienced. Cancilla described riding a Mexico City Public transport bus noting, “I stood with Dr. Mattiace in the women and children section and it was awkward breaking that sort of social norm in the public space. We considered…how that behavior reflects on the divided society.”

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While professors and students in the Political Science department work together through the senior capstone project, the opportunity to directly collaborate with faculty on larger, ongoing research programs is rare. “This was my first time doing one-on-one work with a student,” said Professor Mattiace, but she emphasized that working with Cancilla was a comfortable and easy experience. Moreover, she noted that the experience was impactful. “Being able to experience the cultural differences with a student was great.” Cancilla echoed similar sentiments, noting that conducting research with Professor Mattiace was a “tremendous experience.” As Cancilla explained, working with Professor Mattiace provided a deeper context for the work and resulted in “a well-rounded educational experience.”

Student-faculty collaboration of this kind is at the heart of an Allegheny College education. In addition to introducing students to research, these experiences help students learn more about their fields of interest and become active participants. For example, Professor Mattiace is currently working on writing an article with a colleague from another university and hopes Cancilla will collaborate on the paper.

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To learn more about how you can find opportunities to work with faculty on their research, please visit the URSCA office, our website, or contact Professor Knupsky at The office provides advice for getting started in research, has funding to support travel to present work at professional conferences, and offers programming designed to build the skills necessary to engage in undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative activities.

Ghost(Light): URSCA on the stage

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During the fall semester of 2015, students and faculty alike flooded the Vukovich theatre for (Ghost)Light, an original performance piece developed over the course of two years, supported in part by the Andrew W. Mellon Collaborative Undergraduate Research in the Humanities grant. Though the construction of such pieces may not immediately be thought of as “research,” the development of (Ghost)Light required intensive faculty-student collaborative scholarship and creative work. Originally conceived by Professor Beth Watkins from the Communication Arts and Theatre department, (Ghost)Light took shape through interdisciplinary considerations of research from both the sciences and the arts. Student collaborators helped to analyze scientific literature on electricity and then transformed the knowledge extracted from that research into creative representations and expressions through choreography, puppetry, and more.  (Ghost)Light explored the conception of electricity and its role in human history, highlighting notable figures like Marie and Pierre Curie, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. Watkins described the process of devising the theatre piece in her Director’s Note, sharing that “combining historical research and movement-based theatre techniques with storytelling–has fostered our sense of creative invention and shared ownership.”

As Stephanie Engel ‘16, one of the research assistants on the project explains, (Ghost)Light was a unique performance piece in that it told a story about science, and history of light in particular, by “conveying scientific information through a creative lens.” (Ghost)Light is one among many projects in the past few years at Allegheny College that have helped to redefine how we perceive and imagine academic research with students. Engel emphasized the importance of this new way of thinking when she describes “the rabbit hole effect.” In other words, Engel notes that, “The more you investigate, the more likely you will get pulled into other branches of study that are outside of what you intended to research. It can lead to discovering more insightful information about your topic…”

Students participating on the project also shared how their experience helped them rethink what research involves. “I would talk to my friends conducting research on salamanders over at Carr Hall during the summer, and we were over in the Vukovich contorting our bodies and telling stories,” Joe Bruch ‘17 shared, “Completely different work, but still recognized as academic research. This is what I think really makes Allegheny such a great place to learn.” The development of (Ghost)Light emphasizes that research isn’t limited to the sciences, but can be applied to any creative endeavor and can combine various academic disciplines in pursuit of the same goal.

The Andrew W. Mellon Collaborative Undergraduate Research in the Humanities is in its last year of funding at Allegheny. So far, 47 faculty-student projects have been supported across departments such as English, Communication Arts, Art, Classical and Modern Languages, and Philosophy.

–story by Natasha Torrence
–photo by Bill Owen

URSCA Fall Events

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February, 2016 – The Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activities (URSCA) office held two events last fall, the Summer Research Symposium and a Gator Day panel about how to get involved in research.

The Summer Research Symposium occurred during Family Weekend, on Saturday, October 24th, in the Academic Commons at Pelletier Library. The symposium provided students who conducted summer research, both on and off-campus, an opportunity to present a poster about their research. At the poster session, twenty-seven participants presented research projects. Research topics covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from a discussion of the interdisciplinary development of the play (Ghost)light, to the development of an international undergraduate global health conference at Allegheny, to computer science research connecting robots with health monitoring. As a part of family weekend, the event gathered a large audience and provided students with great first-hand experience presenting their work and recognizing that their work can have meaningful implications for society at large.

“It was great to get to practice presenting my work to a variety of audiences.  It can be difficult presenting research to groups of people that have a wide range of familiarity with the topic–from those having little familiarity with the field to those being experts in the field.  Being able to talk about my work with confidence to a variety of audiences will be especially beneficial during graduate school and beyond,” said junior Biochemistry major Cari Koerner of the long-term benefits she gained from participating in the symposium.

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Sophomore Communication Arts’ major Brigit Stack also discussed how meaningful the research symposium was in helping her recognize the broader implications of her work, “I was actually having discussions…about the real world applications and importance of my study rather than just doing work for a professor and not knowing if the work would ever reach more people…To hear that students do research is one thing, but to see it in practice and talk with them about it provides a tangible example of the kind of research possible at Allegheny.”

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In addition to the Summer Research Symposium, the URSCA office also hosted a Gator Day session on Tuesday, October 27th. The session consisted of a panel of professors and students from each of the major academic divisions (natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities) discussing their own experiences with undergraduate research, scholarship, and creative activities and suggestions for others about how to get involved. The professors that participated in the panel included Dr. Aimee Knupsky, Dr. Soledad Caballero, and Dr. Ivelitza Garcia. The student panelists included Loryn Mazurik ‘16. Manuel Marquez ‘16, Conner Bardine ‘17, Katie Denning ‘16, and Andrea Brush ‘16. The panel attracted approximately 60 students and provided them an opportunity to ask their own questions about the research process.

“The session was just incredibly inspiring. Even though each person on the panel did research on something different, they were all passionate about the same thing: learning. It made me realize why I want to get involved with research, because it is a different way to learn outside of the lecture and discussion we get with our classes,” said first-year Megan Arnold about how the URSCA session influenced her understanding of research, scholarship, and creative activities.

For students who were not able to attend the Gator Day panel but still want to learn more about how to get involved in research, scholarship, or creative activities in their field of interest, the URSCA office is available to advise students about their research needs. URSCA staff is available during spring office hours on Monday 1:00-3:00 PM, Tuesday 1:00-3:00 PM, Thursday 3:00-5:00 PM, or by appointment. Just come by Gateway room 253 anytime during those office hours, or email us at to set up an appointment.

–Story by Kathryn Denning ’16

–Photos by Shane Ostrom ’19

Humanities Research Opens Students’ – and Professor’s – Eyes

Catherine LeBlanc and Leah Thirkill spent last summer reading Victor Hugo’sNotre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Although you may picture them sitting by the beach leisurely paging through the novel, the scene and purpose for their reading was much different. Instead, the students were on campus conducting humanities research alongside Briana Lewis, assistant professor of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages.

LeBlanc and Thirkill, both freshmen at the time, conducted this research as part of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant for Collaborative Undergraduate Research in the Humanities, a grant the College received in 2013. Each six- to 10-week grant supports student-faculty collaborative research in the humanities.

“Being on the Steering Committee and seeing the variety of projects encouraged me to think about how it could apply to my work,” Lewis explains. “In the foreign languages, we have an extra hurdle when involving students in research, because the students need to have the necessary language skills. I was motivated to create our own model of how this could work, and it ended up going very well.”

For their research project, Lewis tasked the students with reading Notre-Dame de Paris – in French – and looking for certain themes. The ultimate goal was to connect their findings with Lewis’ past research.

“The first week, we did a really intensive study on background information about author Victor Hugo and my past research,” Lewis says. “Then we spent four weeks reading and taking notes chapter by chapter. We studied themes such as women, vision, who’s seeing whom when and how that is gendered. It took other directions too, such as the ambiguity between the living and the dead. It was all interconnected.”

When LeBlanc, a French major and history minor, first learned about this research opportunity, she admits that she didn’t know how she would conduct humanities research.

“When you think about research, you usually think about microscopes and test tubes. Humanities is different, so I wondered what I really would be doing,” she says. “But I quickly learned valuable research skills. I had some previous experience analyzing text, but I had never done it with so large of a text with so much depth.”

“Research isn’t typically thought about in the languages. But this experience – as a freshman – allowed me to see what I can do with language in a master’s program or beyond,” adds Thirkill, who is double majoring in French and psychology.

Although the students are taking a break from their research this summer, they will be digging back into it this fall as they work with Lewis to prepare for a conference at Princeton University in November. According to Lewis, the conference, “the Nineteenth-Century French Studies Colloquium,” is the top conference for 19th century French studies in the country.

“I probably wouldn’t be presenting on Notre-Dame de Paris if it weren’t for the work Catherine and Leah did last summer,” Lewis says. “This was my first time doing summer research with students, and it pushed me in a different direction as a scholar. Their work definitely advanced my research.

“Working with Catherine and Leah also helped me as a teacher,” she adds. “In the fall, I am teaching a new research methods course for the modern languages department, and this experience has very much informed the way I will teach research at a much more student-focused level. I have a clearer sense of what I need to articulate in the form of a course.”

Learn more about student-faculty humanities research at Allegheny.

— Heather Grubbs

Mellon Foundation Grant to Support Student-Faculty Research in the Humanities

July 10, 2013 — Allegheny College has been awarded a $600,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support student-faculty collaborative research in the humanities.

The funds will be used for summer stipends for students conducting research with faculty mentors and stipends for faculty mentors, as well as for faculty development initiatives focused on humanities faculty. About 90 students should benefit from the research opportunities during the next four years.

Although Allegheny students have benefited from a dynamic summer research program for many years, most of the research opportunities have been for students in the natural sciences and social sciences. The grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation will enhance student research experiences in the humanities, including art, communication, dance, English, history, languages, music, theater and women’s studies.

The grant further helps the college achieve one of the goals outlined in its strategic plan, fostering close faculty-student relationships.

“We realize the critical role our faculty play in the academic and personal growth of our students,” says Provost and Dean Linda DeMeritt. “Alumni remember their favorite faculty and the one-on-one work they accomplished with those mentors as one of the most important and transformative experiences they had on campus.”

Associate Professor of English Soledad Caballero co-directs the humanities research program with Associate Professor of Art Amelia Carr.

“The Mellon grant to foster faculty and student research collaboration in the humanities is a sign of Allegheny College’s commitment to undergraduate research, and it demonstrates the important place the humanities have in our curriculum,” Caballero said. “Humanities faculty and students have responded to the opportunities this grant provides with enthusiasm and creativity, and 22 students and 15 faculty received grant funding in support of a wide range of collaborative projects this summer. We appreciate The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s support of Allegheny’s mission to enhance innovative research opportunities for faculty and undergraduate students in the humanities.”

Senior Colleen Friel Receives Fellowship from American Society of Plant Biologists


Allegheny College senior Colleen Friel, from Natrona Heights, Pa., has been awarded a highly competitive Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship from the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB). Friel, who is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in economics, was one of only six students from undergraduate institutions nationwide who received the ASPB award.

Although Friel does lab research throughout theacademic year, a summer fellowship allows her the opportunity to narrow her focus and get insights into what it would be like to be a full-time researcher. [Read more…]