Vol. 5, No. 1: Spring/Summer 2009

Seeking a Deeper Learning Experience

by Erika Knudson

Cox Research Scholars pursue research and creative adventures in learning from their first semesters on campus.

Talk to a Cox Research Scholar and you get the feeling you’re talking to someone who is secretly a superhero enrolled at an academy in which each student has a special power. Like X-Men, but without the mutant back story. Their eyes just seem a little brighter, they have extraordinary energy and drive, and they radiate intellectual passion and interest.

The not-so-secret academy the Cox Research Scholars belong to is Indiana University. What sets them apart are their powers of intellectual enterprise. They’re all undergraduates, all Indiana residents, some of them first-generation college students, who are engaged in seeking a deeper learning experience through undergraduate research and creative activity.

If this were an X-Men movie, the Patrick Stewart role of Professor Charles Xavier would be played by the late Jesse Cox, the benefactor of the Jesse H. and Beulah Chanley Cox Research Scholars Program. It was his $77 million gift to Indiana University, after all, that started this cadre of supercharged undergraduates on their quest for learning.

Cox Research Scholarship recipients receive a full undergraduate scholarship valued at more than $63,000 over four years. The scholarship pays for all educational expenses related to tuition and mandatory fees, and includes a room and board allowance equivalent to the cost of a double standard room and a full meal plan. In addition, scholars are provided with a research stipend valued at 25 percent of the full award. To be eligible, applicants must display high academic achievement, and be interested in working under the direction of a faculty mentor on research and scholarly activities. Each year, a new class of up to 40 scholars from Indiana is named, and in 2008–2009, there were 22 new Cox Research Scholars. There are currently 51 scholars from the first through third classes of the program.

If Jesse Cox is Professor Xavier, then Heidi Schulz, Cox Research Scholars Program administrator, is the telepathic Jean Grey. Her special power is matching scholars with faculty mentors who help the students discover their strengths and interests, guiding them through their undergraduate experience, and giving them the opportunity to do high-level research and other scholarly investigation. Schulz also has added programming like dinners with speakers from IU’s Patten Lecture series, where students have the opportunity to interact with Nobel Laureates and other luminaries. “I’ve been working on making this a special, coveted program,” she says. “My goal is to make this program something that high school freshmen and sophomores compete for and dream of.”

“Our students have so much initiative and energy, and they are so excited to be involved in well-established scholarly activity,” she says. “And the faculty of IU is what makes this program work. They are so willing to meet with students and consider working with them. And taking on a first-year undergraduate student is an amazing thing for our top professors at IU to do.”

The program levels the playing field as IU competes with top schools for the best and brightest Indiana students. “These students realize how important research experience is, and they are turning down offers from Ivy League and other Research I institutions to come here,” says Schulz. “Some of the scholars will tell you that they were headed elsewhere to school, but they visited IU and decided to come here instead. Meeting our faculty as well as seeing other students engaged in research usually seals the deal.”

Other institutions, because they lack money and willing faculty, have a difficult time competing for these high-ability students, says Schultz. At IU, she notes, “we have both in great quantities, thanks to our professors and the Cox gift.”

Cox Research Scholars are engaged in a wide spectrum of scholarly pursuits. From hard sciences to the arts and humanities, their research and creative activity is taking undergraduate study to new dimensions.

Dominique McGee and Professor Kevin Brown

A trip to Ghana with 17 other IU students was a life-changing experience for junior Dominique McGee. A direct admit to the Kelley School of Business, she realized upon returning from her Africa sojourn that she would change her major to a double focus on international studies and French.

The trip was with the Hudson Holland Scholars, and focused on the African side of the slave trade. “We visited a slave castle dungeon, and it was very sad to see what it was like for my ancestors,” she says. “It had a profound effect on me, and I realized I needed to focus on studying Africa and global integration and development.”

Her first Cox Scholars mentor was Kelley Professor Munirpallam Venkataramanan, and she still has a close relationship with him as she continues to minor in business and pursue a certificate in the Liberal Arts and Management Program. She goes way back with her current mentor, Professor of Law and former Hudson Holland Scholars Director Kevin Brown, who recruited her to IU when she was a student at Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis. Now she is helping Brown with several research projects, including a study comparing the situation of African Americans in the United States with the “untouchable” caste in India and a paper about the issues facing affirmative action and university admissions with a growing presence of African immigrants and biracial students in the minority student population.

The project that both mentor and mentee are most deeply engaged in now is an effort to start a boarding school in Ghana for at-risk African American students. In the course of meeting with Brown’s other research assistants to work on this demanding project, Dominique says, she has become very interested in the study of law, and sees it as a possible next step in her academic career.

It’s a career that is incredibly rich—in addition to her double major, she has taught piano and served as an executive board member of the African Students’ Association, and is a member of an African francophone dance troupe at the Neal Marshall Black Culture Center. And, oh yes, she is a single mom who has managed to balance her considerable achievements with parenting.

“Dominique’s horizons are so broad,” says Brown. “Someone like her could become Secretary of State. It’s my job to make sure she gets the right experience and is connected with the right people as she progresses.”

Rebecca Rice and Distinguished Professor Ellen Ketterson

To say that freshman Rebecca Rice has been involved in research that is really just for the birds would seem to trivialize it. But it really is for the birds, and it is extremely important research.

In Distinguished Professor Ellen Ketterson’s lab, Rebecca has studied immune function, disease resistance, and evolutionary dominance behavior in juncos. She’s done fieldwork with graduate students Dawn O’Neal and Jonathan Atwell, netting birds on misty mornings with Dawn and observing with Jonathan the patterns of dominance among two populations of juncos in the aviary of IU’s Kent Farm Bird Observatory. Then there are the hours “chugging away at the computer” with Jonathan in the lab back on campus, charting correlations between the measurements of white tail markings of each bird and its relative dominant and submissive behaviors.

“Then we take that data and we do magic,” laughs Rebecca.

“By magic, Becky means math,” says Jonathan. “And I am discovering that Becky has more math skills than I do,” he adds, as she demurs.

Rebecca grew up in Bristol, Indiana. She is animated as she talks about how exciting it is to be doing in-depth research in the lab of one of the luminaries of avian biology, the close relationships she’s formed with Jonathan and the other graduate students on the research team, and the critical thinking skills she’s gained.

“It is such a big advantage to work in the same lab for 8 to 10 hours a week for four years,” she says. “I feel like I am contributing more to the university and its function in society, by helping with its research rather than just taking classes.”

She was surprised to find not only an intensive research experience, but also such a deep sense of belonging. “I know it sounds kind of corny or sentimental, but Jonathan, Ellen, and the other grad students are really my family at IU.”

For his part, Jonathan says he was surprised at the caliber of student Rebecca was. “I wish I had been half as on the ball when I was an undergraduate,” he says. “My wife and I have often commented on how mature, professional, and intelligent Becky is.”

“Becky is quick, and she is fearless,” says Ketterson. “I expect she will graduate with honors. She will have published scientific papers as an undergraduate, and she’ll assume the abilities of her mentors. She will mentor in turn. What I expect from her is growth, competence, achievement, and recognition, and the ability to pass those all along.”

Jacob Fisk and Professor Fred Duer

Sophomore Jacob Fisk is building a brilliant future behind the scenes, brick by Styrofoam brick.

Jacob helps make entire dramatic worlds come to life on the stage, working 8 to 10 hours a week in the scene shop of the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center. The Fishers, Indiana, native is a double major in Telecommunications and Theatre and Drama, learning about lighting, scenic design, technical direction, and production, in the dual realms of film and stage. His mentor in the Cox Research Scholars Program is Assistant Professor of Scenic Design Fred Duer, who was a scenic designer for theatre, film, and television before coming to IU. Duer’s credits include the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Saved by the Bell.

At Cathedral High School in Fishers, Jacob had the rare fortune to be able to work with “a great teacher,” he says, who had a career in lighting design before becoming a high school teacher. Jacob worked on every production his high school staged, culminating in his selection as head scenic designer for a production of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

“Our productions were pretty sophisticated,” says Jacob. “People would say ‘this is high school theatre?’”

At IU, he’s had a rich experience as well, including, among other things, serving as assistant props master for Dead Man Walking, running lights for the recent show Marisol, and helping construct portions of the sets for such shows as Stop, Kiss; The Wild Party; and Hamlet.

Professor Duer was surprised to learn that a Cox Research Scholar could be matched with him. “I said, don’t you want Cox Research Scholars to be doing bench research? But Heidi reassured us that the program isn’t just about the hard sciences, it is about creative pursuit as well.” For Duer, the experience has been a reaffirmation of his impulse to leave TV for academia. “For me, seeing someone’s face when they’ve learned . . . I love that coming back to me,” he says.

The place where much of that learning happens is the scene shop. It has lofty ceilings and is suffused with the aroma of sawn wood and recently welded steel. Giant PVC tubes with neat marker-drawn labels like “Piano Hinges,” and “Pipe Clamps,” are arrayed against a bank of windows, with a dollhouse-sized model of the Stop, Kiss set balanced on a table nearby. On the floor is the actual wall for the Stop, Kiss set, in the throes of construction.

It is the epitome of the creative workshop, an ideal space for forging a young man into a behind-the-scenes star, and Jacob is completely at home here.

“It’s not like I am a student here, doing work that will sort of help,” he says. “I’m doing real-world here.”

Erika Knudson is Co-Director of the IU Office of Creative Services in Bloomington.

Back to top