Think Tank projects immerse students in collaborative resarch with faculty and bring academics to life in a whole new way.
When considering think tanks, names such as the RAND Corporation, Brookings Institution, or the Pew Research Center may come to mind.
However, beyond these more widely known groups, intriguing and unique think tank research has been taking place for more than 15 years at Daemen College. It is happening as part of the Daemen Student-Faculty Interdisciplinary Think Tank where faculty and students alike are exploring an incredible range of topics. A few current examples include the presidency in America, euthanasia in Holland, and water quality in Erie County streams.
The following is a look at the college’s Think Tank initiative, including its diverse research projects, providing another example of Daemen’s academic excellence.
Established in 2002, Daemen’s Think Tank has fostered a tremendous number of projects that bring together faculty and students to perform theoretical and applied research in a wide variety of fields. Grants available through the Think Tank program provide funding for original research projects that can take professors and students into the local community or around the world to provide remarkable learning experiences.
“The Think Tank is a very popular component of the curriculum at Daemen, involving local, regional, and international research projects,” explains Dr. Michael Brogan, senior vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college. “These projects have proved to be transformational for students, and, at the same time, they are instrumental in aiding Daemen faculty members in completing important research.”
Brogan estimates that the Daemen Think Tank has supported hundreds of projects since its founding, ranging from research seeking scientific results in a lab setting, to archeological digs in Greece, to the exploration of issues in the arts and humanities. The Think Tank program provides funding up to $3,000 per project for faculty and student researchers.
Think Tank funding often makes the difference that gets a research project off the ground and launched into the world of discovery. In the 2017-2018 academic year, 14 different research projects were started through the Think Tank.
“The Think Tank’s mission is to promote a deeper commitment by students to research with an eye toward enhancing the well-being of all mankind,” Brogan explains. “These are undergraduate students doing research that is often on the level of graduate programs, and they are learning to do research in much the same way as a Ph.D. candidate, which gives the Daemen student researcher a leg up when applying to graduate school or starting their career.”
As seen in the examples that follow, Think Tank students may have their research findings published in an online series, included in a printed journal, or presented at an educational or research conference.
“I would expect this at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. How wonderful to have it at Daemen.”
That is what one member of the Daemen Board of Trustees had to say about a forum on the American presidency conducted at the college. The full-day event explored the history and memory of four American presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Grover Cleveland, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren Harding.
As part of the event, Dr. Lisa Parshall, professor of political science, and Dr. Penny Messinger, associate professor of history and chair of the Daemen History and Political Science Department, co-sponsored a Think Tank project, working with student researcher Gabrielle Sinnott ’19. The project looked at how political cartoons and presidential caricatures influence public perception of an American president’s personality and performance in leading the country.
“We wanted to look at how American society has assessed presidential success throughout history and chose those presidents because they all are unique and interesting,” explains Messinger. “Creating their caricatures for the logo for the forum was a great exercise for Gabrielle in exploring how artists use personality traits and physical characteristics to influence the perception of a politician.”
A first-year student at the start of the project, Sinnott was at that time a graphic design major when she took a class with Dr. Parshall on American democracy. Parshall, who had already collaborated with Messinger on putting together the American presidency forum at Daemen, saw an opportunity to involve Sinnott.
“Interdisciplinary is a key term in the Think Tank philosophy, and at Daemen as a whole, as we look for ways to give the student comprehensive learning experiences involving different disciplines,” notes Parshall. “For Gabrielle, the project gave her exposure to political science, history, and graphic design. It was a unique experience for her that also helped us in creating communications for the event.”
Sinnott worked with the two professors on creating a logo for the forum event, researching how the presidents were portrayed in the past, and exploring the world of caricature herself as an artist. The logo was used on the poster, program, and other materials for the event, which featured a panel of experts on politics and the American presidency and was attended by nearly 100 people.
“The project really helped my growth as a student and actually influenced me to switch my major to history and political science,” explains Sinnott. “It opened my eyes to disciplines such as political science and taught me to expand my outlook on all the learning experiences available at Daemen.”
A native of Newfane, N.Y., Sinnott will graduate from Daemen in 2019 and says she is keeping her options open as to what comes next. Possibilities include graduate school to study anthropology or joining the Peace Corps. As seen in the next project example, the Think Tank has enabled Sinnott to really broaden her horizons.
A Moral Argument
Euthanasia, the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering, is a complicated topic. Making it even more complicated is a recent act in Holland, where the practice is legal and well-regulated, regarding the right to euthanasia for individuals with mental illness. (Euthanasia is illegal in most of the United States.)
The right to euthanasia in Holland was the topic of the second Think Tank research project in which Sinnott participated. Her interest in the subject stemmed from listening to a podcast during her sophomore year, when she was taking a morals and ethics course with Dr. Serife Tekin, a former professor of philosophy at Daemen. She discussed the subject with her professor, looking to write a project paper that she could present at conferences and include in a portfolio when applying to graduate school. A Think Tank project was born.
Working with Tekin, Sinnott drew on research and policy in the Netherlands to demonstrate the complexity of the issue regarding patients with mental illness. Would a person have the mental competence to make such a decision? Would treatable depression be allowed as a requirement? She explains that questions such as these warrant skepticism of the policy in the Netherlands. “Two of the requirements to allow euthanasia for a Dutch person with mental illness are very vague,” Sinnott explains. “My argument is that the guidelines need to be tightened to better monitor cases. I question the defensibility of assisting mentally ill patients in dying.”
Sinnott presented her paper and research at two national conferences, including the National Conference on Undergraduate Research in Oklahoma, which she attended with funding from the Think Tank. She gave her presentation and research during the four-day conference and was among 4,000 attendees from 19 different countries. Conference presenters were invited to submit their work for publication, and Sinnott is waiting to hear when her paper might be included.
“Think Tank funding was critical for me to attend the conference,” Sinnott concludes. “The project strengthens my transcript and portfolio even more.”
The next example further shows the diversity of Think Tank research projects at Daemen.
Dr. Sarah Whorley oversaw a faulty-student Think Tank project that required standing in local streams in all kinds of weather and scrubbing algae off rocks with a toothbrush.
“Algae plays an important role in an aquatic ecosystem, making up the base of the aquatic food web, including in streams all around Erie County,” explains Whorley, now in her third year as a professor of biology at Daemen. “For our Think Tank project, we collected algae to use as biological indicators in assessing water quality in local streams.”
Whorley was assisted on the project by Mopati Kuswani ’19, a Daemen student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, who will graduate next spring.
Born in Gaborone, Botswana, Kuswani moved with his family to Syracuse, N.Y. when he was 12-years-old. His parents, both professors who have since moved back to Botswana, encouraged Kuswani to attend college in the United States. He says he chose Daemen because of the size of the college and affordability.
“My experience at Daemen has been very fulfilling and I believe it has prepared me for graduate school and my career that follows,” explains Kuswani, who plans to go on to medical school. “Working on the Think Tank project gave me many tools and experiences that I know I will draw on in a career in the medical and research fields.”
For Kuswani, the Think Tank project served as a research capstone to add to his college transcripts. He notes that Whorley was a great mentor who was involved in every part of the project, from sample collection to long hours in the lab doing testing.
Kuswani and Dr. Whorley visited eight different streams, three different times each, collecting algae and returning to the lab at Daemen to perform chemical analysis. Kuswani was focused on researching the effect of phosphorous, one of the two big nutrients in aquatic systems, nitrogen being the other. Phosphorous, a component of fertilizer, enters streams from farms, home subdivisions, industry, and other sources.
They were testing to see if the amount of phosphorous entering streams changes by season and by how much. The researchers found that enzyme activity showed a gradual but significant increase as the seasons changed, and fatty acid levels correlated with increases in human activity.
Think Tank funding provided the resources to perform the research project’s many chemical analyses. It also enabled Kuswani to attend with Whorley the Northeast Algal Society Symposium in Connecticut, where he shared his research findings in a poster presentation.
“I had never presented anything in front of a group of people who were in the same field and familiar with the same topic,” Kuswani concludes. “It was stressful but afterward it felt great. The Think Tank project allowed me to share the hard work I had done with Dr. Whorley at Daemen with others in the science field.”
In addition to conferences and symposiums, Think Tank projects are shared at Daemen’s annual Academic Festival. The event provides Think Tank students an opportunity to showcase their achievements and ignite academic discussion on the subject of their research projects.
“Research is necessary for society to progress,” concludes Brogan. “We are proud that the Daemen Faculty-Student Interdisciplinary Research Think Tank plays a role in helping to enhance the well-being of our communities on the local, national, and global level.”
For more information on Daemen’s Think Tank, visit daemen.edu/academics/research/student-faculty-think-tank.