Students Develop Research Skills in Unique Summer Program

Fifty-nine Captains get hands-on research experience during summer break.

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For weeks, Owen Napolitano studies tiny insects under a microscope.

One by one, the senior catalogs the genus and species of hundreds of beetles that have been collected over the past 13 years across Hampton Roads. He peers at their antennae, takes close stock of their body shape and determines their names.

He switches things up on Fridays. Clad in Virginia’s version of safari gear, he stalks bugs across Newport News, adding close to 200 specimens to the collection.

That is not what most college students would do over summer break, but it’s not unusual for Christopher Newport students.

Napolitano, an organismal biology major from Reston, is one of 59 Captains who participate in Christopher Newport’s Summer Scholars program. The initiative by the Office for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity (OURCA) funds research for dozens of undergraduates each summer.

The topics vary, representing nearly every academic interest possible. Students investigate software to control drones, dissect works written by the Founding Fathers and navigate mapping software to plot the settings of literature written about the Irish border. Rising sophomores, juniors and seniors conduct experiments in the field, gathering and analyzing data and presenting their works as formal papers and projects.

In some cases, students continue work they’ve already begun with professors. Others craft their original ideas and seek collaborators. Each participant receives a stipend to help support their work, and meets with their faculty adviser as necessary.

In Napolitano’s case, he works with Dr. Michael Meyer, chair of the Department of Organismal and Environmental Biology, to develop a project based on an interest in entomology, the study of insects, that developed in a class.

Meyer gives him the task: catalogue the thousands of beetles that students have collected across the region since 2006. Napolitano devises his own schedule and plan to assess the data.

Early returns indicate that the beetle population in Hampton Roads has declined in the past several years, a discovery Napolitano makes through his painstaking identification process. The research helps answer questions about changes within the local ecosystem, while also giving Napolitano real-world experience in the field.

“Dr. Meyer has really given me the freedom to make my own schedule and figure out my own process of how to most effectively record the data,” he says. “This is an entirely different experience. It’s not in a classroom with a bunch of other students. … It’s been really cool to just figure out as I go how to do everything.”

Marketing major Nicole Pope works closely with Dr. Angela Spranger in the Luter School of Business as she researches human resources policies and changes made in the #MeToo era. The project continues work Spranger has done with other students and hopes to cap off with an academic paper.

The two collaborate extensively throughout the summer, even traveling to a conference to present a paper together. Spranger gives Pope feedback on a reflection Pope has written, proudly declaring that the senior has transformed from a young scholar to a “real researcher” over the summer. Pope agrees.

“If you have the right mentor, the right project and the right interests, I think you can change your life,” says Pope.

Sophomore Danielle Freeman begins her undergraduate research experience as a research apprentice, another OURCA program.

That experience, combined with an eye-opening intersectional feminism course, leads her to want to develop her own study of what students think about gender bias and racism. She spends the bulk of her time as a Summer Scholar drawing up the parameters of the project, which becomes rigorous when human subjects are involved. She plans to conduct the study throughout the school year.

“I’ve learned so many things about how research is conducted, how to be able to do it in an ethical manner, the processes that are needed especially when working with human subjects in order to ensure that you’re not only benefitting the academic community and yourself but you’re benefiting them as well,” Freeman says.

“I’ve been able to learn how to make presentations, how to organize my research, how a research project is conducted, which is crazy because we are undergraduate students. Most people don’t even start their first research project until they get to graduate school.”

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