From Pupil to Partner

By Nathan C. Martin

Loyola undergraduates and professors form strong relationships, often resulting in impressive collaborative research.

From Argument to Article

Walter Block, Ph.D., and student Rachel Sayers both agree that argument can be a useful tool for intellectual progress. Block, the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair and professor of economics, has worked on research projects with his undergraduate students for 15 years, advising on and co-authoring papers published in peer-reviewed journals for more than 30 Loyola students. While he is proud of them all, Block says his students who—under his guidance—publish single-author papers that directly oppose his own views hold a special place in his heart.

Sayers, a senior in political science who took Block’s Labor Economics class, is a great example of this category. She published a paper, with Block’s help, titled “The Cost of Being Female: Critical Comment on Block,” in The Journal of Business Ethics last September. The Journal of Business Ethics is the most prominent academic journal in its field, and Sayers’ article is a systematic critique of Block’s position. Block says he could not be happier about it.

Block is among the many professors at Loyola University New Orleans who have engaged undergraduate students in academic research for more than a decade. Naomi Yavneh, Ph.D., director of the University Honors program and Undergraduate Collaborative Research, explains that Loyola’s culture of undergraduate research has deep roots, especially at the department level, where professors’ efforts to engage undergraduate students as deeply and meaningfully as possible often lead to projects outside the purview of normal classroom work.

Undergraduate research projects at Loyola often evolve organically out of semesters-long relationships between students and faculty and result in invaluable learning experiences for student and teacher alike.

Block and Sayers’ relationship evolved organically in such a way. In the Labor Economics class, they debated the cause of the wage differential between men and women in the United States who hold the same jobs. Block asserted that women make less money than men not because of employer discrimination, but because males have higher rates of workplace productivity due to the inequalities in the social structure of marriage—because married women assume a disproportionate amount of household tasks, they are less productive in the workplace, while the inverse is true for men. Sayers took issue with this argument, first in classroom discussion, and later in the term paper that would evolve into the article she published in The Journal of Business Ethics.

Immigration and Identity

Of course, most undergraduate research at Loyola involves students and professors whose positions do not oppose one another. Nathan Henne, Ph.D., assistant professor of languages and cultures, researches indigenous Latin American cultures and poetics. He is especially interested in the concept of mestizaje, a pervasive strand of indigenous thought that refuses to imagine a “pure” or “original” state of existence—for instance, what the Garden of Eden represents in Christian mythology. Henne is interested in how indigenous ideas like mestizaje might inform contemporary cultures. When his former student Gicel Estrada ’11 approached him about researching the ways in which Latin Americans in New Orleans form their self-identities—often out of cultures that include U.S., Latino, and indigenous components—it was the beginning of a project that was rigorous and fruitful for both of them.

The final product of Estrada’s research project, the capstone for her bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies, was a series of oral histories from Latinos in New Orleans on how they retained elements of their Latino identities while forming new identities away from their home countries. Estrada found subjects whose self-identities were highly complex, with disparate aspects that interacted harmoniously at times and in conflict at others. The oral histories are being housed in the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Loyola and are part of a much larger project to collect and examine cultural information about New Orleans’ Latino population.

Both Estrada and Henne stress that the process leading up to conducting the interviews was as important as the final product. Estrada worked diligently with her professor to curate lists of articles and synthesize the readings to ground the project in a solid theoretical foundation. Henne says collaborating with Estrada in this process helped him find new ways to blend his research and teaching, which he views as essential to succeeding as a well-rounded professor.

The Fight Against a Kissing Killer

Patricia Dorn, Ph.D., also involves her students in theoretical work to prepare them for undergraduate research projects. Dorn, professor of biological sciences, is an authority on Chagas disease, a parasite that afflicts between eight and nine million people in Latin America and results in fatal heart disease for 20 – 30 percent of those it afflicts. Chagas disease is transmitted in large part by “kissing bugs,” whose name is derived from the insects’ habit of feeding on humans’ faces while they sleep.

Dorn has involved her undergraduate students in laboratory research for 17 years. She has published nine journal articles, three book chapters, and one monograph on her Chagas research since 2009, with the support of a $498,000 Board of Regents grant, two National Institutes of Health grants, and other generous contributions. In weekly laboratory meetings, her students facilitate discussions and complete assignments on oral and written scientific communication, grant writing, the ethics of working with animal and human subjects, peer review, and mentorship. Much of what they learn, however, comes directly from working with Dorn in the lab.

Dorn works with scientists throughout the United States and Central America, especially Guatemala, tracking the genetic and geographic patterns of those kissing bug species most prone to carrying and transmitting the disease. Her students work hands-on with the kissing bugs, capturing them in Guatemala, dissecting physical specimens, isolating their DNA, and analyzing it in the lab. Her students obtain a rich and textured understanding of scientific concepts and practices. Those who join Dorn in Guatemala to attend an annual Chagas symposium witness the social implications of their research and the global nature of science.

These students’ growth also furthers important Chagas research. One of Dorn’s former students, Nicolas de la Rua ’10, published a first-author paper, co-authored by Dorn, on the high genetic diversity of kissing bugs in New Orleans. Now working with one of Dorn’s colleagues as a graduate student at the University of Vermont, de la Rua is writing an important paper on the evolutionary history of nearly all of the kissing bug species in Central and North America. Another of Dorn’s former students, Bethany Richards, began working with Dorn last summer but is already developing a new technique to test genetic variations on a species of kissing bug whose subspecies look similar but are genetically distinct.

Yavneh, the undergraduate research director, plans to build on the impressive research accomplishments of Loyola’s student-faculty teams. As founding chair of the Arts and Humanities Division of the Council of Undergraduate Research, Yavneh brings particularly valuable expertise to an already thriving program. Yavneh and her colleagues plan to channel the many ongoing projects into an infrastructure that will provide more resources and opportunities for students and faculty. Over the next decade, undergraduate research at Loyola will become even more widespread and robust than it currently is, helping more students and professors build strong bonds, conduct important research, and add to the overall quality of academic life at Loyola.

Nathan C. Martin is the marketing copywriter for Loyola’s Office of Publications and Creative Services.

View the complete fall 2012 issue of LOYNO.

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