The Public Honors College

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SMURF at St. Mary’s College

July 23, 2013
Press Release #13-092


Does political affiliation make a difference on how one perceives their own smoking habit?

Are invasive plant species harming and killing off native species in Historic St. Mary’s City?

These are two examples of the topics chosen by students who participated in the St. Mary’s Undergraduate Research Fellowship program this summer. SMURF is an eight-week annual summer program at St. Mary’s College, where students from a variety of disciplines delve into research topics of their own aspirations with guidance from faculty mentors.

“It’s not necessarily research the way you often hear about in the sciences; it’s truly scholarly work,” explained Sam Elliot, biology professor and director of the program. “Because writing a creative fiction piece may take some research into historical times or a set of other things, but it’s also creating something brand new. The purpose of the program is to introduce students to how scholarly work occurs.”

The SMURF symposium held in early July culminated with the presentations of research projects by the 10 student participants. Students presented their findings to an audience of their peers and professors on topics running the gamut from the English-centric study “The Great American Banquet: A Humorist’s Response,” to the chemistry-based “Adventures in Environmentally Friendly Organic Synthesis.”

Elliot spoke about SMURF’s interdisciplinary approach, which she said makes the program unique. “There are many summer research programs out there that are typically for specific subjects. We take students from multiple disciplines, so we get to have different conversations. … We get to have the conversations about what it means to be a scholar in English, or anthropology, or art history or chemistry. They learn to talk about their work to people who don’t automatically understand it, which can be quite hard, and it’s a skill set with which most people struggle.”

Approximately 10 to 12 students participate in SMURF each summer since it started in 2012. The program is selective, with a fifty-percent acceptance rate. “We [the selection committee] look for good projects, exciting projects,” said Elliot. “We also look to make sure the student has the background to succeed in the project, so we look at course work and GPA, and we also ask for recommendations from faculty members.”

“I heard about it from my adviser,” said Benjamin Baker ’14, explaining how he got involved in SMURF. “I was talking to him about SMP ideas, and he suggested SMURF as a good place to start.” Baker, who is an anthropology major, did his research on “The Special Needs Community Experience,” a topic inspired by his mother, a special needs teacher. “I had the experience of her coming home every day talking about what she did. … I guess there was a personal interest there,” he said. 

Baker plans to use his SMURF project as a springboard to his SMP. He also plans to attend graduate school and major in applied anthropology, a field he said will allow for the use of research to help people.

SMURF is made possible by support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in addition to a number of internal funding sources. A portion of the funds go toward a stipend for the students, as well as room and board for the eight weeks. “We recognize that many of our students have to work during the summer, so this is a way to get them to do something in an area that they’re interested in, while gaining good experience,” said Elliot.

For Zarrin Thompson ’16, a biology major who was looking for summer work, the opportunity was too good to pass up. “I think it’s one of the best summer opportunities on campus. You’re here for free, you get a stipend, and you get the opportunity to work with a mentor.” Thompson, who explored the topic “Pretty Little Devils: The Plant Invasion of Historic St. Mary’s City,” said she would definitely recommend SMURF to her peers. “I think it’s a good thing to do before your senior year to possibly get your SMP kick-started,” she said.

Psychology major Caitlin Nickens ’14, who researched “Perceptions of Smoking: An Impact on Health Disparities,” saw SMURF as an opportunity to build pertinent skills. “I want to go to medical school, so I was looking for a way to do research or to get involved in some type of experience that would be applicable to what eventually, I hope, will be my career,” she said. “When I came across SMURF it seemed like a perfect idea to get experience by doing my own research. … I’ve learned more statics this summer than ever before.”

“I’ve seen many of our students use their SMURF project as a catalyst for their SMPs, and many use it as examples of academic work when applying to graduate school or for job interviews,” said Elliot. “The selection committee looks to see how much we think the experience is going to help the student grow. We want to provide [with SMURF] what could potentially be a life-changing experience.” 

See pictures of the SMURF students in action.