Campus News

Senior Symposium Highlights Scholarly and Artistic Research

April 23, 2014

Marvin Krislov

Research is one of the most important and least obvious aspects of Oberlin life for our students and faculty. It goes on year round on our campus—in the science center, in the libraries, in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, in the Conservatory, as well as in field sites around the world. But unless you are involved in research or know someone who is, you might never notice.

That’s why I am always amazed by the annual senior symposium, which highlights the tremendous range and depth of scholarly and artistic research undertaken by members of the graduating class. This year, 50 seniors will present their independent and collaborative work to the college and community in concurrent panels in which each student delivers a 12-minute presentation. Senior Symposium 2014 will be Friday, April 25, from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m. at the Science Center.

Oberlin has a long tradition of student-faculty collaboration on research. One of the best examples is the close mentoring relationship between Charles Martin Hall, who graduated from Oberlin with a degree in chemistry in 1885, and Frank Fanning Jewett, his professor. Inspired and aided by Jewett, Hall discovered on February 23, 1886, the process for electrochemical aluminum refining right here in Oberlin.

Such close collaborations between students and the teacher-scholars on our faculty remain the foundation of Oberlin education and research. In chemistry, for example, Oberlin students can pursue research with four faculty members who have received the prestigious Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award: Catherine Oertel (2013); Rebecca Whelan (2011); Manish Mehta (2009); and Matthew Elrod (2003).

That collaborative ethos combined with our high level of scientific, artistic, and scholarly rigor is what sets research at Oberlin apart from research at many other colleges and universities. Last spring, I received an email from a 2011 Oberlin graduate that speaks to Oberlin’s great tradition of collaborative research. This student was a scientist and a two-sport varsity athlete at Oberlin. She is now at Harvard Medical School and is thriving.

She wrote that she had conversations with several different classmates who were undergrads at schools including Harvard, MIT, and Stanford. She was surprised when they would say things like "the best part about this is that once you're a medical student, the faculty actually want you around," or "the coolest thing about medical school is that the faculty really respect us, so we actually get some agency and ownership over what we do."

While she said she had no idea what research or student/faculty relationships were like where her colleagues studied, she never once felt as though the faculty at Oberlin didn't want her around, or as though she didn't have agency and ownership over her projects. She was always treated as though she deserved to have a voice.

That’s what makes an Oberlin education and Oberlin research so special. It’s one of the reasons that so many of our graduates go on to excel in research at graduate school and in their chosen careers.

Oberlin also offers more opportunities for students to pursue research than many other institutions. One example is the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program which seeks to increase the number of under represented students, and others with a demonstrated commitment to eradicating racial disparities, who will pursue PhDs in core fields in the arts and sciences.

Students in their second year are encouraged to apply for the Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program [link: It is open to undergraduates in all fields, disciplines, and majors at Oberlin College and Conservatory.


My inside entertainment tip of the week: go see the lecture/performance by Bill Irwin ’73, in Finney Chapel at 7:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27. Bill is a great person, and an amazing, award-winning actor, clown, mime, dancer, choreographer, producer, writer, director, and the first performance artist to receive a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. He studied theater at Oberlin, taught our first clowning ExCo, and performed remarkable and mysterious feats of dramatic daring-do around campus. After Oberlin, Bill attended the famed Ringling Brothers’ and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, and was a founder of the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco.

Bill is a remarkable and unique creative force. He has written and produced highly acclaimed stage shows. He won a Tony Award for his role on Broadway in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and starred as Mr. Noodle on “Elmo’s World,” which was a segment of the PBS show “Sesame Street.” Bill has appeared in more than 25 films and on numerous television shows. Whatever he does, he does well and like nobody else. So I urge you to go see and hear him on Sunday night.

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