DSU professors take summer off for research

Some professors may be a little rusty when classes resumed a few weeks ago at Dickinson State University. After all, southwestern North Dakota is a land of outdoor adventure. Plus, if professors chose to avoid teaching summer school, they had thr...

Some professors may be a little rusty when classes resumed a few weeks ago at Dickinson State University.

After all, southwestern North Dakota is a land of outdoor adventure. Plus, if professors chose to avoid teaching summer school, they had three months to vacation just about anywhere.

But for a select few professors, the summer off gave them more time to work on research projects that take a back seat during the school year.

At least four professors gave up their summers in pursuit of knowledge.

"Mostly (at a larger university), they have a professor like me over a program...who (is) just dedicated to the research," said DSU biology professor Dr. Lynn Burgess. "Here, it's the other way around; we don't have that luxury."


For professors like Burgess at smaller universities like DSU, summer is the best time to squeeze in their pet projects.

Burgess also is the first of his kind at DSU - a professor who is able to spend 50 percent of his time on campus in the lab.

"I'm kind of cloned," Burgess said. "My job boils down to too much administration."

With the recent addition of Dr. Bill Wolf, Burgess can count on help from his partner.

"It's new working with undergraduates and all that," Wolf said. "I like it. There's more one-on-one than, of course, in a class where there's 24 students getting through a lab in one to two hours."

Wolf hails from around Baltimore and comes with experience teaching and in research, but not both at the same time.

Part of the reason Burgess is able to split in two is because of his grant work. During the course of five years, DSU will receive $1.2 million so Burgess can continue his research.

Research spending


But biomedical research is a unique brand. Just ask psychology professor Dr. Andrew McGarva.

"There's just not the same big funding agencies for social science as there are for curing cancer or whatever else is going on over there," McGarva said.

The other side of that is there also is a tremendous difference in the costs associated with McGarva's and Burgess' respective projects.

For example, to look at and photograph cells under a microscope, Burgess spent about $24,000. McGarva, on the other hand, bought a used car on eBay and paid for gas and other minor maintenance expenses.

It all works out, though. Even if there's more funding in natural science, both have a multitude of funding sources. Sometimes, it just takes McGarva a little bit of extra work.

Along with outside sources of funding, DSU has a committee dedicated to collaborative research involving faculty and students. McGarva chairs the committee and is responsible for its annual conference.

"We spend about $10,000 a year over the past five or six years," McGarva said. "As I understand it, half the money comes from the (DSU) foundation and half the money comes from DSU."

For most students, McGarva's collaborative research committee is the easiest way to get a project funded.


"Students send in solicitations (for funding) by e-mail," McGarva said. "They give me an abstract of their study and a detailed, itemized budget."

McGarva said he does look at cutting the costs of the projects where possible, but for the most part all the projects get funded.

"You can demonstrate the increase in research activities conducted by undergraduates by looking at the amount of requests over time,' McGarva said.

Still, DSU is far from being a large research institute.

"Research isn't required of the faculty here and in fact, most don't," McGarva said.

While any department has the chance to apply for the funds, McGarva said the ag department uses the vast majority - with psychology coming in second.

Practical application

Along with furthering knowledge, the research world also aims to serve practical application purposes.


Roger Ashley, an agronomist at North Dakota State University's Dickinson Research Extension Center, is working with a student to help farmers in drought-ridden areas.

Ashley and student Wes Messer are building on a previous project where a farmer in Manning got two crops off of one field in a single growing season using no-till seeding methods.

"Quite a number of producers and ag industries have a good feel for what is needed," Ashley said of how projects such as this are chosen.

Hard work

To some extent, it's completely understandable why most staff don't do research - it's a lot more work and at times hardly rewarding.

For McGarva, it's a slow and steady process. He balances his research with that of present and past students' projects.

"It's not one project all the time," McGarva said. "It's kind of a juggling act, and I'm doing all this while teaching a greater course load than they would ask in a research institution."

In another social science - history - Dr. Michael Taylor has a different way to fit in all his work.


"There's not really a set amount of time it takes," Taylor said. "Luckily, I'm an insomniac. I only sleep 2½ to three hours a night, so I have the time to devote to it."

Even though both history and psychology are considered social sciences, their approaches to research are vastly different.

"Field research has been a big push in social science now for a couple of decades," McGarva said. "I think that's what makes social psychology interesting for me because you're out in the field."

History research on the other hand, means hitting the books.

"We deal with primary sources to the degree you see with master's students," Taylor said.

The two social sciences are similar in the area of publications.

For the past five years, Taylor has taken about three students a year to two conferences to present their historical papers.

"It's not time intensive until two weeks before they turn them in," Taylor said. "Then, it's making sure all the Is are dotted and the Ts are crossed.'


It's just that the timing is not the best.

"It's the first two weeks of school (in either semester) and I'm adjusting to classes," Taylor said.

Taylor receives drafts throughout the summer from the two or three students who present papers.

Preparing for the future

Taylor, like most professors, sees this work as helping his students prepare for their futures, most likely at graduate school.

"(Graduate schools) are looking for students who will finish," Taylor said. "If they're already involved as an undergrad, it's a good indication that they're not going to quit."

McGarva said the students also can earn anywhere from one to three credits for participating in undergraduate research projects.

"This is the sort of work you, to get some sort of experience, the résumé builders, if you will," McGarva said.

Ashley said for him, the research projects offer students an opportunity to develop excellence in something other than the classroom setting.

Natural science has the most students working any given project. During the summer, Burgess worked with four students. That number doubles when classes resumed.

Some of Burgess' students also have the added perk of getting paid to do the work that will help them get into graduate school.

Even if Burgess' and other professors' research is slowed because of the nine-month school year or training new students, they all recognize the importance.

"The production here is: it's as much as or more important to put out students than papers," Burgess said.

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