When Cody Blackketter returned to college after several years of working at a conservation park, he knew he wanted to get his hands dirty studying natural sciences. He did not expect to find an opportunity to do field research and contribute significantly to the completion of an ongoing study his first summer back in academia. Thanks to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program at The Evergreen State College, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Cody is one of 15 students participating in a fellowship through Evergreen’s SURF program this summer. He will work alongside Abir Biswas, a faculty member and researcher working on a project titled “Biogeochemical cycling in Pacific Northwest forest ecosystems.” Their fieldwork takes place around Mount St. Helens. “I’m excited for this project because it will allow me to understand the pacing and rationale behind academic writing,” Cody explains. “I’ll also get experience with practical methods for deadline-driven research.”
This particular project started in 2013 with the support of SURF fellows and seeks to broaden our understanding of the toxic trace metal mercury and its cycling in forest soil as it relates to the presence of overstory vegetation. Soil samples collected around Mount St. Helens since 2013 have been analyzed by numerous SURF students. Cody will spend some time in the field this summer, but he will also spend a significant amount of his fellowship studying primary literature, interpreting data gathered in years past and composing the final manuscript presenting the findings of the study.
The SURF program represents a huge opportunity for undergraduates at Evergreen. It gives students like Cody the opportunity to participate in research that is, in many cases, destined to be published. Numerous student participants have had their names on finished papers and articles as undergraduates. “The connection to and oversight by respected researchers and faculty will help keep me on a productive track and give me insight into real-world issues,” Cody says.
Cody’s faculty leader Abir is an avid proponent of the SURF program. “Undergraduate research is really important to me,” Abir explains. “It was important to me as a student and it’s important to me to offer as a faculty member. The SURF program is beneficial to students, to the college and it also supports my research. I’ve been lucky to work with some fantastic students over the years.”
The SURF program at Evergreen started in 2013. Every summer since then, up to 16 students work with faculty members selected to host fellows on projects ranging from scientific field research to art installations. Candidates for the fellowship are subject to an application process and are ultimately selected by the college’s Academic Dean, Karen Gaul, in counsel with participating faculty.
“These are the kinds of opportunities that graduate students hope they can get,” Karen explains. “In some ways, our entire curriculum is like this. We train and entrust students to do direct research on their own in ways that you would experience in graduate school. It really helps them get prepared for whatever is coming next for them.”
Each fellow receives a $3,000 living stipend for the summer, made possible by the college’s academic budget as well as donors to the Undergraduate Research Fund and the Evergreen Annual Fund at The Evergreen State College Foundation. Donors will often specify that their gift be put toward the SURF program because of how productive it is for students, faculty and the college as a whole. Students enjoy connecting with the donors who made their experience possible by way of a simple thank you note, and sometimes a meeting in person.
Participation in the SURF program has a lasting impact on Evergreen students and their careers. Pam MacEwan is the CEO of the Washington State Health Benefit Exchange and a regular donor to the SURF program. As a student at Evergreen before the formalization of the program, she had the opportunity to work in affiliation with the college during her summers there. “These opportunities expanded the classroom and gave me skills that helped me find work when I left college,” Pam explains. “As an alum, I want to help students who need financial support. SURF means they can afford to take advantage of academic opportunities.”
In many ways, the SURF program encapsulates the Evergreen experience. It is a means of hands-on, experience-based learning. It develops real-world skills that prepare students for professional life in a variety of fields. It helps forge connections between thinkers that can last a lifetime. Karen Gaul fondly recalls her summer working with a SURF fellow. “There’s something so special about working in that team, for both the students and the faculty,” she says. “My work with the student that summer became a book, and we are friends to this day. We’re building relationships and I think that’s what’s at the heart of this wonderful work.”
Learn more about the SURF program on The Evergreen State College website. To support this program, you can donate to The Evergreen State College Foundation.