Student Scholars bring energy, innovation to the table

GVL / Bo Anderson

Eric Saksa presents during Student Scholars Day

GVL / Bo Anderson Eric Saksa presents during Student Scholars Day

Anya Zentmeyer

With 600-plus student presenters representing 60-odd majors across the board, Grand Valley State University’s Director of Undergraduate Research and Scholarship, Susan Mendoza, said this year’s Student Scholars Day had more energy and engagement than in past years, keeping students in the Kirkhof Center’s Grand River Room well past the 5 p.m. end time for the day-long event.

“The presentations exemplified the level of excellence and dedication of the student researchers,” Mendoza said. “They were truly amazing. Faculty were impressed by the quality and depth of the presentations.” Presentations wrapped up with keynote speaker Jonathon Gottschall, author of “The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human,” a book that aims to highlight story-telling as the single, distinct feature that sets humans apart from other species.

“I think jokes are a great example of the way that story infiltrates just about everything that humans do, in ways that we’re hardly aware of,” Gottschall told a full house in the Pere Marquette room. “So jokes are stories and songs are stories, too, and who hasn’t been snuck up on by a story? Who hasn’t been ambushed by a story…when we enter into story telling, we leave ourselves vulnerable, we’re invaded by the teller.”

Mendoza said they chose Gottschall because his work transcends discipline, and offers an example of an all-inclusive vehicle for thought.

“He weaves neuroscience, psychology, and biology to talk about the power of stories in the human experience,” Gottschall said. “These intersections demonstrate how we can layer disciplines to have greater understanding of a particular topic.”

Among the interdisciplinary presentations was biology and nursing double-major Carly Sills, who brought the research element of Student Scholars Day into practical application.

“I’ve always had a really strong interest in the outdoors and biology, and once I came to Grand Valley I got involved in backpacking club and with that and just on my own I got way more involved in the Ravines,” Sills said. “I would just go out there just to hike around, have fun down there and I realized how cool it was and how few people I saw out there…They didn’t know we had trails, they didn’t know that we had deer down there. People were shocked when I said we have deer.”

Sill’s project was part of a pre-existing endeavor to publish GVSU’s first Ravines field guide, which details everything from survival basics to the wildlife, the deciduous trees and the edible plants, complete with recipes for preparation.

“I always thought field guides were cool, I’ve got my own little collection of them and I thought, ‘how cool would it be if we had a field guide to the Grand Valley Ravines?’ to promote the Ravines and get people out there to enjoy nature,” she said. “I’ve always felt that people have to enjoy nature to appreciate it and try to protect it. I felt that as well with the ravines that people had to use it more to really get trail development going.”

Sills spent hundreds of hours in the Ravines – hiking, collecting and identifying plants, helping fellow student Michael Bonarek use GPS to map the trails in their entirety.

“That I’m aware of, the only trail map out there now was just a sketch that someone did from memory,” Sills said. “So I thought that would encourage people to use it, and also get the ball rolling on trail development, because if they have a map then they can look at and talk about these trails, how long they are.’

Sills is donating copies of the book to different clubs on campus that might find the Field Guide useful, and hopes that the work she did will live on past her graduation date.

“I wanted to get people to appreciate the Ravines and I want to set this up,” she said. “I have – and I think I’ve been pretty successful – at setting this up so this is going to be very accessible even after I graduate. I just want people to appreciate it more and have more interest in protecting it and I thought today would be a great way to start that process.”
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