Know this about Dr. Joanne Altman.
She cries every time she sees “Schindler’s List,” and she knows firsthand that orangutans bite fingers. She learned that while studying orangutans in Borneo.
But the real story is this: Altman believes in research.
She’ll stand in front of a host of HPU students and tell them research will set them apart from the crowd of competitors they’ll face after graduation. With every passing year, she says, the competition only gets tougher.
She is no-nonsense about it. She’s the director of HPU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Works program. She started the program four years ago to help students develop skills employees and graduate schools want.
She’ll see what she helped create unfold around her Saturday.
HPU will host the 11th annual State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research & Creativity Symposium, better known as SNCURCS, pronounced like the candy bar Snickers.
More than 700 students and faculty from 40 colleges, universities and high schools from across North Carolina are expected to come to HPU for SNCURCS. Once they arrive, 505 students – including 47 from HPU – will present their research and creative works for the one-day event.
Altman will be in the middle of it all. This is her academic element.
In her role on campus, she helps students receive grants, publish a yearly journal, sponsor a symposium, and learn how to give presentations.
She gets them involved with research, takes them to conferences, takes them on study abroad trips overseas and invites them over for dinner that she and her husband cook.
Then there is the book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!” by Dr. Seuss. She gives it as a graduation gift to students she’s worked with doing research. She wants the book to remind them of what they’ve done and what they can do.
As Dr. Altman likes to say, they flew.
Altman stands in a second-floor conference room at Cottrell Hall, talking to a handful of freshmen about her program’s newest endeavor: Research Rookies.
In the spring of 2014, Altman started Research Rookies to introduce freshmen to the culture of research. They stay active for two consecutive semesters, do 15 tasks and participate in a mini-research project.
If they finish the Research Rookies program, they become what’s known as a Research Apprentice. They get introduced to faculty and receive a medallion nearly the size of a china saucer, which they can wear at graduation.
Every time she pitches Research Rookies on campus, Altman sounds like a coach before a big game. She turns her explanations into academic pep talks that emphasize the program’s importance.
Today is no different.
“You’re doing this to build a strong foundation for your future, and as freshmen, you have so much coming at you,” she tells them. “You have to parse your time. It’s like ‘Should I go to this party or should I study for my physics exam?’
“It’s OK to back out of the program. But if you finish, think about what it does say. You stand out.”
“So, what do you think?” she asks.
Angie Paskewitz doesn’t wait. She shoots up her hand. She’s in.
Rebecca Ulrich knows that feeling. She’s a biochemistry major, an HPU sophomore from Troutman, North Carolina, and a member of HPU’s second Research Rookies class.
That work changed her life.
Ulrich, the daughter of two veterinarians, thought she wanted to be a pediatric surgeon. But after getting a taste of research, she discovered her new career: a medical researcher.
“I can’t imagine my life without it now,” she says about research. “It’s kind of scary. I’m a Type A personality, and I plan. But now, my plans have changed, and it’s unsettling. But it is so amazing. You always hear how when you come to college you will grow and become enlightened, and I can see it happening.
“I can see myself changing.”
Paskewitz wants to see that same thing. Altman – and her numbers – convinced her of that.
“I’m graduating from college with 1.9 million other students, and I feel I have a lot of qualities that make me unique, but a lot of people do,” says Paskewitz, a business administration and marketing major from Lucan, Minnesota. “This, though, can put me on the next level and above anyone else. This shows the passion of who you are.”
Altman spent 20 years at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. She thought she would be there forever.
She taught experimental psychology, coordinated faculty development, served as grand marshal at graduation and advised the school’s psychology honor society. She also took students on study abroad trips to observe animal behavior in Costa Rica, Indonesia and various countries in Africa.
She was one of Washburn University’s two faculty members to win three separate awards for teaching, research and service. She felt connected to Washburn and her students.
Then, in 2011, she heard about HPU’s plans to start an undergrad research program. She applied, got the job and came east with her husband, attorney Jack Kaplan.
Today, she works to infuse research into more aspects of the HPU curricula, and she has taken HPU students across the Atlantic twice and turned Africa into a classroom.
She has walked across campus in her purple, ankle-length cloak, stepped into a classroom and heard students say, “Hey, you’re the cape lady!”
And she has brought students into her home for dinner to eat something exotic and watched them stare at 12 African masks that adorn her living room wall.
But really, there is something else.
Altman, 53, the youngest daughter of a veterinarian, discovered long ago that she loves helping students get excited about research. She sees it in their face, hears it in their voice and watches it unfold in new ways every time they visit her office.
That’s where Dr. Seuss comes in. Katie Long knows that.
As an undergrad at HPU, Long helped Altman with her research on primates. Several times a week for 18 months, Long drove 30 minutes north to the Greensboro Science Center to study the cognitive abilities of Leon, a gibbon, and Roscoe, a lemur.
Through those trips, Long’s passion for working with animals became tangible. In 2011, she left a small town in Connecticut and brought with her to North Carolina her big dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Altman helped her find her way.
For three years at HPU, Long saw Altman every week. They talked about Leon and Roscoe. But later their conversations at Altman’s office turned into discussions about Long’s career, life and future.
One late afternoon in January, Long found out through email she had been accepted to Iowa State’s veterinary school. The next morning, Long burst into Altman’s office.
“Guess what,” Long blurted out. “I got into vet school!”
“See,” Altman responded. “I told you!”
In May, Long graduated from HPU with a biology degree. Today, she lives in Ames, Iowa, studying veterinary medicine. She keeps on her desk the graduation gift from Altman: the Dr. Seuss book, “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”
On the inside cover, Altman wrote:
You are a woman with a plan. You have shown amazing dedication and diligence following that plan. Stay true to these characteristics. They will help you find a wonderful future, whatever it becomes. And thank you for letting me have a small role in your plan. I have been enriched by your passion and enthusiasm. Know that I have great confidence in you.
Dr. Joanne Altman
When vet school gets tough – and it does, Long says – she keeps the book close to remind her how one professor supported her every step of the way.
“Without Dr. Altman, I wouldn’t have gotten as far,”’ Long says. “She taught me things I never knew. She shaped me.”
For Altman, it goes back to a few lines she knows by heart.
“There is this poem that I read in class,” she says. “‘Come to the edge, he said. We are afraid, they said. Come to the edge, he said. They came to the edge, He pushed them and they flew.’
“That is my teaching philosophy, and that is my goal,” she says. “Our job is to help students go further than they ever thought they’d go, and the special ones, they’re the ones who flew.”