Erin Pelkey

Professor of Chemistry Erin Pelkey
Faculty Address
August 26, 2019

So I have one question. Here it comes. So listen carefully, have you ever panned for gold? (A few faculty members raise their hands). Well some faculty. Any students? You have to really raise your hand. Oh my gosh! It’s like I’m going to have to change my speech now because I was expecting no one.

So, panning for gold. What I’m talking about is getting in a stream, you have your pan and you put some sod in it, there’s some rushing water, and the dirt goes down and you’re swirling the pan around. And what are you hoping to find? After swirling the water there’s some pebbles left.

And if there’s gold in that pan how do you feel? You have to really get into it. You’re panning for gold. You have to put yourself [in the moment]. You hiked up to 7000 feet, you’re miles away from anywhere, right? You’ve dug, you read books, you’re panning for gold and there’s a little piece... How much gold does the pan need to have in it for you to be excited? Anything, right? Anything. Are you telling me you’re panning for gold and all this exploration, you’ve flown to Montana, you’re up at like 8000 feet. You have your grizzly bear spray, because there are grizzly bears. I saw two cubs when I went. Which was super scary. So you’re panning for gold. If you find gold it’s exhilarating, Right?

So it turns out I went panning for gold just a couple weeks ago. I have a very adventurous brother. He sent me a text (aside: I don’t think we’ve ever talked on the phone but he sent me a text) that just said, “Do you want to go looking for treasure in Montana?” And do you know what my answer was? “Heck yes I do.”

When someone asks you something and you have a little bit of excitement about it that should be your response: jump on it. So certainly enough, I don’t think I’ve seen him in like a year, I showed up at the airport right outside of Yellowstone and sure enough he picked me up. It was great. So, I am panning for gold with my brother, right? We have our bear spray. One of us is on bear spray alert, right? And it turned out a couple days prior lovely Cathy Williams asked me to give the speech. So, I’m planning for gold and thinking, “What am I going to talk about?” I know I wanted to talk about research. And here is the thing that struck me. Panning for gold, the excitement of trying to find gold, really reminded me of doing research. Organic chemistry research it’s like panning for gold. Not the activity of panning for gold but the feeling you get when you find something and I know that our Convocation speaker felt the same way. You could hear in his voice the little excitement level went up because, “Oh my gosh, my life has changed.” And that’s what research can do for you. Doing research with the faculty here, you can really have your own “panning for gold” moment.

So I solicited the faculty because I wanted to share with you examples of faculty doing research with students. And what I mean by students, is you! You are the stars of the show, so if you don’t realize that - get on board! Are you starting to realize that? (Students cheer). I kind of actually believe you. So here are some examples. I’m going to read the fields. When something gets exciting, and you think, “Hey I might want to study that...” Start listening! Okay?

From geoscience professor Nick Metz and his research students - that is how I’m going to phrase all of these examples, “professor AND research students.” And in a lot of ways, it’s the research students doing this. Professor Metz and his research students are studying high impact snow events. Also in geoscience, John Halfman and his research students are studying the drivers for the rise of Blue Green Algae in the Finger Lakes. That is right here! And effects lake health all over the world! Psychology professor Emily Fisher and her students are exploring how to break down politicized barriers in science classes. And in French and Francophone studies Professor Catherine Gallouet and her students are translating plays from French to English and then studying their production. From the field of physics, Leslie Hebb and her research students recently traveled to Chile to go to an observatory. I think if somebody asked me do you want to go to Chile... What would my answer be? “Heck yes I do!” A biology professor and her research students are working to understand evolutionary relationships through a variety of species using next generation DNA sequence data, and I am telling you this is high level stuff. From the field of sociology Jack Harris is researching with his students the concept of conservational inertia. Also in sociology, Renee Monson and her students are studying research outcomes and dynamics in undergraduate research projects. In the field of chemistry Professor Miller and his students are synthesizing potential anti-cancer compounds from scratch. Another chemistry professor and her research students are studying biological chemicals that affect water purification. Water purification! Does that seem important? Heck yes it is! From the field of dance, every year faculty collaborate with students to design new artistic compositions. From the field of mathematics, Joe Rusinko and his students are analyzing DNA sequence data to study the history of life on earth. And finally from the field of math and philosophy professors Paul Kehle and Eric Barnes are studying ways to maximize fairness in debate tournaments.

I did not organize these particularly well, but what I want to say is: this is a wide range of things. And these are just the people willing to respond to my email late at night. There is more out there than just this so my hope is, when somebody asks you... If you want to pan for gold, that’s a heck yes! Or if you want to go to Chile, that’s a heck yes! And if someone asks you to think about doing research your answers going to be...Heck yes!