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Beyond Book Smart

Spring 2012 | By Linda Thomas Terhune. Photo by Mark Simons.

Liberal arts students Nick Davis and Sara Beasley pursued creative solutions to complex problems last fall in their work as undergraduate research interns through a program designed to advance learning and shed light on issues of global importance.

Davis, a junior studying history and anthropology, examined the mica content of pottery fragments from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1400 B.C.) in Armenia for Ian Lindsay, assistant professor of anthropology. Mica occurred in only one region, so its presence in pottery might lead to clues about travel and trade. For Davis, the internship was an invaluable hands-on experience that he hopes will help prepare him for a career exploring ancient civilizations.

Beasley looked at contemporary civilization in her work with Niambi Carter, assistant professor of political science and African American studies, on a book project examining African American perceptions and opinions on immigration. She transcribed interviews and helped the professor analyze them for recurring themes.

Davis and Beasley were participating in the college's Margo Katherine Wilke Undergraduate Research Internship program. Launched at the beginning of the school year, the program matches undergraduates with liberal arts faculty research projects. It is run in partnership with the University's Discovery Learning Research Center, which is committed to creating innovative learning environments and nurturing life-long learning for students and citizens of a global community.

Niambi Carter
Sara Beasley (left) hopes to use her French and political science majors in a career dedicated to improving the lives of the disadvantaged. Her internship with Niambi Carter, assistant professor of political science and African American studies, introduced her to research methods and African American perspectives on society. Photo by Andrew Hancock.

Up Close and Personal

By teaming with Lindsay, Davis was able to take a close look at a portion of the professor's activity related to National Science Foundation-funded field research excavating fortress settlements. The work is part of Lindsay's research into the origins of complex political organization in the southern Caucasus region to the north of Mesopotamia.

In addition to examining the pottery sherds, Davis analyzed other archaeological cases where ancient or contemporary traditional potters used micaceous clays and looked at why potters used mica in their pieces.

"This sort of hands-on work is vital for giving undergraduates a feel for how archaeologists use excavated materials to answer questions about culture and social life in the ancient past," says Lindsay. "While much of what is fun about archaeology revolves around being out in the field, it is often back home in the lab where important patterns in the data are revealed and where you get those 'Eureka!' moments of discovery by studying the artifacts, radiocarbon analysis, and more."

Beasley, a senior in French and political science who hopes to use her education to improve the lot of the disadvantaged, says that being a part of Carter's book project — "Mediated Truths and Racial Realities: African Americans, Immigration, and National Belonging" — has given her insight into the research process and taught her about African American perceptions of society and their place in it.

Carter says, "The Wilke program is an important element of undergraduate education, because it shows students what professors do as a large part of their work beyond the classroom. It also shows students how research gets done, which is not usually an easy or neat process."

An enriching experience

The new program, funded by a bequest from the Margo Katherine Wilke Endowment and the Office of the President, will offer student internships each academic semester. In addition to nurturing interest in the humanities, it seeks to stimulate awareness of advanced research and promote interest in graduate education. Participating students receive a $500 scholarship in recognition of their selection.

Students also enroll in a one-credit seminar that offers a broad overview of research-related professional development topics as well as an introduction to liberal arts research and scholarship. Guest speakers engage students in seminars introducing them to the essentials of conducting research: professional relationships, laboratory training, grant writing, publications, confidentiality, and intellectual property rights. The course requires students to maintain a reflective journal and to submit an end-of-semester report, either a project paper or project poster.

Mohan Dutta, associate dean for research and graduate education, says the Wilke program gives students a rare opportunity to engage in liberal arts research and see how it is evolving to become more collaborative. The research opportunities are generated by faculty members. Other topics during fall semester included "Law, Moms, and the Workplace," "Knowledge and Sustainable Development: A Community-based Oral History Project in Nnindye, Uganda," "Designing Education: What Video Game Designers Can Teach Us About Pedagogy," and "Without Play, There would be No Picasso."

Davis, a Marine reservist who served in Iraq for a year, says the internship was a terrific experience that complements his classwork at Purdue.

"Of all the classes I've taken," he says, "this is the most useful one. I get to put my hands on ancient pottery."

Valuable Insights Live On

Margo Katherine Wilke Melichar
Margo Katherine Wilke Melichar, circa 1963. Photo courtesy of Paul Melichar.

Margo Katherine Wilke Melichar was known for her quick wit, great sense of humor, spirited personality, and caring soul. These qualities were all fed by a love of the humanities and a lifelong interest in history.

An estate gift after her death in 2009 established the Margo Katherine Wilke Endowment at Purdue, which benefits students in the College of Liberal Arts. The Margo Katherine Wilke Undergraduate Research Internship Program is its first project.

The youngest child of an influential family of engineers, bankers, and industrialists, Wilke was born in 1934 and came to Purdue in 1953 from her home in Hammond, Indiana. At Purdue, she studied a broad range of the social sciences and humanities, which she found intellectually stimulating. She graduated in 1956 with a Bachelor of Science degree in history, government, and philosophy.

She married her college sweetheart, Paul Melichar, who graduated in 1957 with a B.S. in American government and politics, and together they raised a son and a daughter.

Fascinated with travel, she worked for 23 years as a travel agent, specializing in the cruise and business sectors. In addition to her passion for golf, her flair for gourmet cooking, and her love for family and friends, she had an abiding interest in history, which she read avidly.

"Margo felt that she got a true education at Purdue: broad perspectives for understanding herself and the world, and valuable insights into how and why many present-day concepts have been shaped by ideas and events of centuries ago," explains her husband. "It would have given her special pleasure to help inculcate in students a lifelong love of learning that extends beyond profession and technology — an interest in the humanities and social sciences in addition to technical subjects."

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