Summer research programs at Aquinas: “Adding new knowledge to the human experience”

Dana VanHuis conducting research in the field.

Story by Elizabeth Walztoni, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy of Richard Smith 

With the end of another summer, 10 research projects sponsored by Aquinas have drawn to a close. This year the Summer Scholars and Mohler-Thompson grants supported researchers in nine different disciplines, and several students participated in other off-campus opportunities. The Mohler-Thompson grants are focused on natural science and math, while the Summer Scholars program offers funding for any area of study.

The two differ in process and time commitment, though both programs require a faculty mentor. Students are approached by professors with an idea for a Mohler-Thompson project; come summertime, they are expected to work full time on campus for 10-12 weeks. The Summer Scholars program, meanwhile, requires a joint proposal from a student-faculty team and leads to roughly 10-hour work weeks for 10-12 weeks.

Dr. Elizabeth Jensen of the chemistry department, who chairs the Summer Scholars program, highly recommends it for students. She stresses the importance of experiencing disciplinary research before committing to the field as a career. It can be very different from what students usually consider research — not the books you read in the library before writing a paper, but in fact creating new information and “adding new knowledge to the human experience.”

While research varies depending on the discipline, it is invaluable regardless to understanding what lies beyond one’s undergraduate studies. Practice working closely with colleagues (professors, in this case) in a professional academic setting is another positive.

Senior Dana VanHuis, an Environmental Studies and Geography major, participated in research at the Pierce Cedar Creek Institute in Hastings, MI over the summer. With a group of students from other colleges, she studied how different types of grassland management improved biodiversity in vegetation, macroinvertebrates and birds. They hope this research will be used in future land management at Pierce Cedar Creek and for field professionals to improve their work.

She echoed Dr. Jensen’s sentiments about the experience. She says she gained confidence in her field work skills and knowledge outside the classroom or in the lab, and learned what it would really be like to work at a field station. VanHuis said it was a “really great community to spend the summer with,” and an enjoyable way to explore a career.

If you are interested in the student research experience, Dr. Jensen added, it is never too early to start preparing. Mohler-Thompson preparation begins in November, and offers are extended in early January; the number of proposals approved depends on the year’s endowment, but usually average five. Summer Scholars proposals are submitted in the third week of February and go through several rounds of approval; a final five are selected to be funded.

You can begin in the meantime by indicating interest to professors and doing background research on topics that interest you. Research experiences off-campus are updated regularly at


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