UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN River Falls
March 16, 2023 - As the nine University of Wisconsin-River Falls students presenting their research projects at Wisconsin’s state Capitol in Madison on March 8 entered the ornate building that is home to state government, feelings of trepidation and awe washed over them.
The trepidation was because students would interact with state lawmakers and other officials who would ask them questions about their projects they had prepared during the previous eight months as part of Research in the Rotunda, named for its location in the Capitol rotunda.
The awe? It was for the exact same reason.
In the days leading up to their Research in the Rotunda presentations, participating UWRF students said they were excited to describe their research project to lawmakers and others. But they acknowledged feelings of nervousness and uncertainty, too.
Those worries disappeared, however, as soon as they began to talk about their work with lawmakers, university officials and other students also presenting their research.
“I was nervous at the beginning, but being familiar with my research project made it easy for me to relax and be confident in what I was talking about,” said Diego Theisen, a senior psychology and business administration major from Minneapolis who researched the impact on job reviews/ratings of employees informing their employers that they have a diagnosed mental health condition.
“The whole event felt very prestigious, and teachers and administration from all of the UW schools went around looking at (project) posters,” he said. “It was a very useful networking event while also allowing me to meet important politicians within the state.”
Besides Theisen, other UW-River Falls students who presented Research in the Rotunda research include Yihong Deng, Sierra Kolodjski, Cierra Kirkwood, Dylan Jensen, McKinley Davis, Emma Etten, Beth McIlquham, and Sophia Cobian.
Students from across the UW System participate in the annual Research in the Rotunda event. As undergraduates, they spend months on their research that is considered graduate-level work.
Like other students, Kirkwood said she was nervous about presenting her work in the state Capitol. But her nerves melted away when she described her work to others, especially when she realized they were interested in her research. Her project surveyed the amount of lead, copper and zinc in western Wisconsin wetlands.
“I was surprised by how many people stopped to ask about my research,” said Kirkwood, a senior from St. Cloud, Minn., who is majoring in environmental science. “It felt good to have so many people express their interest and praise for all the hard work I had done.”
Other students said they also had positive interactions with people who wanted to learn more about their work. They described how discussions about their research boosted their confidence and prompted additional thoughts regarding their projects.
“When I talked with people who stopped by, I felt so proud of our research, and it was an excellent opportunity to think about the next steps,” said Deng, a food science major from River Falls who presented with fellow senior food science major Kolodjski of Bethel, Minn., on developing a more durable biodegradable packaging film that could replace plastic wrapping. “I got a lot of inspiration.”
Students said seeing others’ work, and discussing research with their peers, helped them better realize the high-caliber projects being done by their colleagues across Wisconsin.
Interactions with state lawmakers also were enjoyable, they said, and helped them become more confident about their projects.
“I believe that getting to talk to (lawmakers) one-on-one removed their political labels in my mind,” Kirkwood said. “It helped remind me that they are just people too.”
As she and Kolodjski described their research to politicians, Deng said she felt an unexpected surge of confidence.
“When we got to talk with some legislators to introduce our research, they were very friendly, and I was not nervous at all, unlike what I had imagined,” she said.
Grace Lewis, a food science assistant professor, and Youngmi Kim, an agricultural engineering technology associate professor, served as faculty advisers for Deng and Kolodjski. Lewis attended the event and said it was heartening to watch students’ confidence grow.
“In doing this, you see the students take a new level of pride in their work,” Lewis said. “They realize that the research they’ve conducted is important and cool, and it gives them a new level of enthusiasm and confidence as they move forward in their journeys.”
Photo Inset: UW-River Falls student Cierra Kirkwood discusses her research about heavy metals in northern Wisconsin waterways with Rep. Shannon Zimmerman, R-River Falls, during the March 8 Research in the Rotunda event at the state Capitol in Madison. Beth Schommer/UWRF photo.