Relevant Skills Through Research

This story is featured in the Fall 2018 edition of the HPU Magazine. Below, learn  how HPU students gain real-world, life skills through the pursuit of scholarship and apply them in the working world.

“You mean you’re just an undergraduate?”

Jordan Gannon got that question a lot inside the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Support Center. It’s where the museum houses thousands of artifacts when they aren’t on display.

At HPU, Gannon conducts research alongside Dr. Jillian Davis, assistant professor of exercise science, to uncover why plant-eating sloths have teeth like carnivores. And while accessing the Smithsonian’s collection is the kind of experience usually reserved for graduate students, Davis didn’t hesitate to ask the museum.

That’s because Gannon was ready. Throughout her HPU journey, she’s completed multiple research projects and learned to overcome failure, accept feedback and present high-level findings to crowds of people.

Each day, the High Point University senior checked in with museum staff, many of whom were Ph.D. recipients or graduate students, and used her 3D scanner to capture the museum’s collection of sloth skeletons across history.

“The opportunity to get research experience and publish in the field is something that drew me to HPU,” says Gannon, who grew up in Michigan. “Everyone here has supported me.”

Her resume includes accomplishments like landing an internship funded by the National Science Foundation after her freshman year, helping scientists develop eco-friendly fish bait and conducting animal behavioral research at a conservatory.

Those experiences don’t just look good on paper.

Dr. Joanne Altman, director of HPU’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Works, reminds students they’ll graduate college alongside two million other people every year. Their research helps them answer an important question: What will set you apart?


Research Skills = Life Skills

Altman is an experienced psychological researcher who understands that graduates with research experience find success throughout their lives. She attributes that to the connection between life skills and academic research.

“Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate, be resilient and problem solve,” says Altman. “Those are the foundational skills of conducting research.”

That’s why she built programs like Research Rookies and the Summer Undergraduate Research Institute (SuRI). The programs are part of a multi-prong approach that get HPU students involved early in their academic careers.

When Gannon finishes her scans at the Smithsonian, she brings them back to Davis’ lab where the work continues. She’s one of many students who devote their time and energy to research programs year-round.

So do sophomore Dax Loy and junior Hannah Lee Dixon.

Loy is a computer science major from Austin, Texas, who jumped into HPU’s sea of opportunity as a freshman. That includes meeting and working alongside Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak, HPU’s Innovator in Residence.

It also includes seeing a wall of outdated computers inside Couch Hall as an opportunity. Loy asked his professor if he could pick up on work left off by a previous student and build a “Beowulf cluster.” It’s a technical term that refers to stringing together a group of old computers to make them as fast, if not faster, than a
new computer.

“A major lesson I learned from Steve Wozniak is that your work should always have purpose and meaning,” says Loy. “That’s what I want my work to have. There are old computers all over the world that are difficult to recycle, so I want to make use of them by building a system that can still do relevant tasks. At HPU, these computers could run computations or calculations for professors and students in the math and sciences.”

Altman champions the application of undergraduate research in all fields, not just the laboratory sciences. As a computer science major, Loy is an example of that. Students devoting time to research include those majoring in criminal justice, English, computer science, physics, communication, marketing and psychology.

During a weekly seminar Altman leads for students in the summer research program, she focuses on an employer survey from Hart Research Associates that reads, “Nearly all employers (91 percent) agree that for career success, a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than his or her undergraduate major.” 

Through Altman’s focus on career preparation and life skills, students like Loy learn how their research can help them impress employers in many fields.

“I never thought about including my project on my resume until Dr. Altman encouraged me to,” he says. “But I know that experience is king in the world of computer science. My project is proof of my abilities.”


Projects with Purpose

Dixon, like Loy, finds meaning in her research.

Alongside Dr. Melissa Srougi, assistant professor of biology, Dixon tests compounds that could provide safer treatment options for breast cancer patients.
She’s seen aunts and grandparents experience the harmful effects, such as hair loss and lower quality of life, from current chemotherapy and radiation. But her work focuses on compounds that harm only cancerous cells — not healthy ones.

“When I learned about the opportunity to contribute to breast cancer research with Dr. Srougi, that hit home for me,” says Dixon. “Many people in my family have been affected, so I was eager to help. Now, I’m in this lab sometimes seven days a week because it’s where I want to be. It’s an amazing feeling to know that you may be helping improve peoples’ lives.”

And like Gannon and Loy, Dixon’s research experience rounds out her resume. She’s a double English and biology major who’s built a plan to go to dental school. Srougi and Altman know her work as a researcher is an investment that will pay off for the rest of her life.

“It’s so valuable for our students to have these experiences where they are problem solving, conducting critical analysis and communicating their findings,” says Srougi. “When Hannah becomes a dentist, she’ll have to do the same thing with her patients, and she’ll be more prepared because of it.”

Altman knows the everlasting value, too.

“Undergraduate research by definition is always something new in the field, and that means the stu dent ends up with something to talk about that nobody else can talk about,” says Altman. “And, because they’ve put their heart and soul into it, they talk about it with enthusiasm and excitement. Who doesn’t want to hire someone who is very enthusiastic about what they do and is excited about their work?” 

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