Minnesota Private Colleges Emphasize Undergrad Research

By Maureen McMullen, Forum News Service

A summer in France gave Ruth Sexton a chance to research invasive plants in Minnesota lakes.

In Europe, the plants can obstruct waterways and cause ecological issues like low oxygen levels in the water. While the plants also are in Minnesota, they have not caused such problems. Yet.

A Concordia College biology student, Sexton’s research could help keep these issues out of Minnesota waters.

She was among Minnesota’s private college undergraduate students in the state Capitol Wednesday, Feb. 15, showing off research that tackles issues ranging from treating cancer and controlling invasive plant species to preservation of cultural music traditions and broadening the understanding of diverse cultures throughout the state.

Hands-on undergraduate research ranks as a top priority for Minnesota’s private colleges and universities like Concordia in Moorhead.

According to a survey from the Minnesota Private College Council, about 20 percent of graduates from the state’s private colleges and universities enter graduate school within one year of graduation.

“This research work is preparation that makes students ready for higher-level learning,” said Council President Paul Cerkvenik. “This is important to society because upper-level education advances our economic and social interest in so many ways.”

Students from 17 private schools presented research at the Capitol.

Sexton spent the summer in France with other students researching two species of invasive aquatic plants that have made their way to Minnesota lakes.

“We compared the two to see the differences that could have made them invasive in Europe,” she said. “We just want to find out how they got there, why they’re causing problems, and maybe eventually how we can control and maintain their growth.”

State Rep. Paul Marquart, whose district neighbors Moorhead, said Sexton and her classmate’s research is crucial to Minnesota’s lake country.

“I was very impressed with their research projects and what they have done,” he said. “Our youth have a lot of knowledge, have a lot of talents and I think this reinforces that we make sure to not only tap into that, but we provide the resources so that they go on and do even better things.”

Prince Kendema, who studies economics and Asian studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, presented his research on the stories of Hmong, Vietnamese and Southeast Asian Americans.

Kendema’s research involved interviews with 23 people from these communities to highlight each culture’s unique experience, which he compiled online at pages.stolaf.edu/sea.

He hopes his research will challenge generalizations about Asian Americans, who make make up Minnesota’s fastest-growing ethnic group.

“‘Asian’ is really a broad term,” he said. “A lot of people like to just group them together, but they have various cultures that come with it.”

For other students, the research offers an opportunity to connect with their families’ cultural traditions.

Sun Ny Vang, an ethnomusicology student at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, researched Kwv Txhiaj, an ancient genre of music that traces back to Hmong people in China.

This style of chant-singing has all but disappeared from his generation.

“After me, this tradition is going to completely die out,” he said. “So, I looked at ways it could be preserved, how it functions and its relationship to the Hmong language.”

Like the Hmong language, Kwv Txhiaj relies on different tones to convey different meanings.

The first song Ny Vang learned how to sing prompted moved his normally stoic father to tears.

“He didn’t know that this tradition could still thrive,” he said. “It ties the Hmong people together. It’s part of the Hmong identity.”