W&L Students Showcase Original Research at Science, Society, and the Arts Conference The two-day conference in March provided a unique opportunity for students to conduct and share original research in a professional setting.
Washington and Lee University’s Science, Society, and the Arts (SSA) Conference made a grand return to an in-person format this year for the first time since 2019. The two-day event, held on March 17 and 18, showcased original research from undergraduate and law students. With events held at Lewis Hall and Leyburn Library, the conference was a campus-wide affair that gave students the chance to share their work with members of the W&L community and make both academic and personal connections.
“SSA went very well this year, and all of the project presentations, poster sessions and colloquia were extremely well-received as being interesting and informative,” said Chris Dobbins, conference chair and associate professor of music. “The energy from having the conference conducted in person again was palpable, and I think that contributed to the high engagement of presenters and attendees.”
SSA is a hallmark of the rigorous, creative and interdisciplinary work that is essential to a W&L education. Participating in an internal research consortium like SSA gives both undergraduate and law students the unique opportunity to navigate the research process first-hand, collaborate with faculty, and present their findings to their peers and mentors in a professional setting. Students can explore a wide range of interests, and the topics at this year’s conference included literature, history, poverty studies, neuroscience, agriculture, economics, and the history and culture of W&L.
“SSA provides the opportunity to not only present your hard work from throughout the year, but also appreciate others’ research work,” said Louisa Bynum ’24, a neuroscience major who presented a poster on the interaction between sleep and interoception as predictors of anxiety and depression. “I have engaged in both the scientific and literary arts aspects of SSA, and allowing a place for science and the arts to come together provides a platform for a greater exchange of ideas that might not otherwise be intermixed.”
SSA facilitates important conversations about students’ interests and encourages academic engagement outside of the classroom.
“SSA gives each participant the opportunity to learn what their fellow students are studying and explore diverse topics outside of their field,” said Brad Singer ’24, a politics major who presented on the 19th-century debates surrounding the expansion of slavery into the western United States. “SSA serves as the culmination of the liberal arts experience. Each project presented required an interdisciplinary, collaborative effort among students, peers and advisers.”
The conference is also one of the few opportunities open to both undergraduate and law students at W&L, which Leeden Rukstalis ’23L believes makes it such an enriching experience.
“The SSA Conference is among W&L’s most unique traditions,” she said. “It offers students an excellent opportunity to present their research, creative projects and innovative ideas to a diverse and professional audience.”
This year’s conference kicked off with the annual Lara D. Glass Symposium hosted by the Washington and Lee Law Review on March 17. This year’s topic focused on how law should adapt to developing technologies, particularly blockchain technology, and panelists included a diverse group of industry leaders, current and former regulators, and legal scholars.
On March 18, events began with a panel presentation titled “Interning and Volunteering in Lexington: The Importance of Community Engagement and Service Learning,” featuring Ellie Penner ‘23, Kamryn Godsey ‘23, Lawson Brantley ‘24, Allie Stankewich ‘23 and Katie Yurechko ‘24. All the panelists are actively involved in the Lexington-Rockbridge community through a past or current internship or volunteer opportunity. Moderated by Natalie Spangler ‘23 and Emily Brookfield ‘23, the panel discussion focused on the importance of off-campus student engagement and community outreach. The panelists emphasized the power — and the responsibility — W&L students have to make a difference in the Lexington-Rockbridge community and encouraged their peers to use campus resources to find meaningful opportunities for community outreach.
SSA helps facilitate important conversations about W&L’s history and role in the Lexington community and is also a unique forum for students to gain first-hand experience with the research process. Jake Winston ’24 and Adele Roulston ’24 conducted original research on the changing landscape of W&L’s campus community and focused on personal experiences to tell the history of W&L. Both students found the research process rewarding because of the opportunity to interview and connect with W&L alumni about their experiences at the university.
“The highlight of my project was getting the chance to interview some of the women who arrived at Washington and Lee in 1985, the first year the university began admitting women as undergraduate students,” said Roulston, an anthropology major who presented on the history of coeducation at W&L.
“I learned more and more that the past is only written by those who have the means,” said Winston, a history major who presented on the university’s Jewish history. “All of this W&L history was silent and unearthed before I was given the opportunity to explore it.”
Participating in SSA gives students the chance to dive deeper into subjects they’re passionate about outside the classroom setting. Natalia Micheli ’23L especially appreciates how the conference serves as “a nice stepping stone” for those anxious about presenting their work, but also highlights “the student body’s massive achievements in academics.” At SSA, students are encouraged to go outside their comfort zones and share their interests with the campus community.
“SSA is an excellent opportunity for students to take their personal academic interests and find recognition for their pursuits outside of their classes,” John Coffron ’23L said. “By providing an avenue for students to share their research in a professional setting, W&L gives us more incentive and pride in our excellent scholarship.”
Julienne de Vastey ’23 used SSA as an opportunity to combine her interests in ecology and public health to present the poster, “Climate Change and Infectious Disease.” De Vastey, a biology major and environmental studies minor, selected this topic because of its environmental justice implications and learned a lot not only about the topic, but about her own capabilities as a researcher.
“I think the research period really taught me resilience, especially when I hit a wall in the project or lost faith in my abilities,” she said. “College is meant to prepare you to solve problems and enact change, and SSA pushes students to start that work now by giving us the opportunity to develop projects on subjects we care about.”
Pursuing your passions and working to make a difference in the world was also the focus of this year’s keynote presentation, delivered by Irish musician and activist Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich. He used his own family’s deep roots in Kerry, Ireland to discuss how art and music are embedded in a place’s history and natural environment, and he focused on the role of traditional music to sustain community and express deep emotions like trauma, hope and perseverance.
Beaglaoich highlighted his own activism, specifically his use of art and music to draw attention to the depopulation occurring in rural and Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking) areas in Ireland because of new planning laws, which are threatening the sustainability of traditional culture by making it nearly impossible for young Irish people to build on local Gaeltacht land where their families have lived for generations. His address was interwoven with performances of traditional Gaelic music, allowing the audience to experience the emotional power of the music and the role it plays in preserving Gaelic culture.
A testament to the power of individuals to enact change and leave their mark on the world, Beaglaoich’s presentation was an inspiring conclusion to a weekend full of purposeful academic engagement. W&L’s SSA Conference provides a unique forum for students to engage in original research and share it with their peers and mentors, and the event is indicative of the distinct and personalized education the university offers. The research presented at SSA speaks to the important conversations W&L students initiate about the world around them, and the innovative work they will continue to pursue after graduation.
Learn more about SSA 2023 and find a full schedule and description of events here.