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May 11, 2012

Meeting of the Minds

Adviser Helps Undergraduates Research Their Passions

By Abby Simmons

From an artist's lens, Elaine A. King sees the most important lesson undergraduate students can learn from conducting research is how to focus and integrate.

"At the university, we often think of conducting research in fields such as computer science, history or medicine; however, artists, too, must delve deeper into subjects or processes," she said.

King, a professor of art history and theory encourages her students to select topics of personal importance and challenges them to develop tight proposals outlining their scope of work.

She is just one of the many professors who mentor students and advise them on their undergraduate research projects. More than 450 of those projects from Carnegie Mellon's six undergraduate colleges were on display at the May 9 Meeting of the Minds in the University Center.

Last summer and fall, King advised Ashley Bravin's research project on violent sports, which was funded by the Undergraduate Research Office's Small Undergraduate Research Fellowship and Small Undergraduate Research Grant (SURG) programs. Bravin worked with School of Art Professor Mary Weidner on a related SURG-funded project this semester.

"I think it's really important, especially for underclassmen, to apply for grants," King said. "It helps them learn how to apply for future fellowships and graduate school, and receiving a grant shows that they are already respected by others in their field."

Bravin turned to the Undergraduate Research Office when she needed funding to create large-scale, mixed-media paintings. She wanted to compare Depression-era prizefighting, or boxing, in the United States with the recent resurgence of dogfighting in Kabul, Afghanistan. International media reports about dogfighting, once banned by the Taliban, sparked her interest.

"Both of these 'blood sports' rose in popularity during times of social, political and economic unrest," Bravin said. "I had worked with Elaine for a couple of years and thought she'd be a great adviser. I was also in constant contact with Stephanie Wallach and Jennifer Keating-Miller from the Undergraduate Research Office as I wrote my first research proposal."

King was in contact with Bravin about once every two weeks last summer.

"I never want to be a 'helicopter adviser' - I only want to be there to engage in a critical dialogue that results in students pushing their ideas," King said.

Bravin said they discussed her research on films, books and photographs to inform her art. She also sent King photos of her paintings as they progressed.

"King is a faculty member and an art critic. She provided me with helpful feedback about my paintings and the processes I was using to create them," Bravin said.

"I saw a major change in Ashley's work from her proposal to her final project. There's a maturation process," King said. "I wish our students could continue developing their projects even further."

Many of King's former students have applied their undergraduate research experiences to life beyond Carnegie Mellon. One of those students is Stefanie Kim (A'09).

Kim approached King after attending her talk "Likeness: Transformations of Portrayal After Warhol" exhibit at the Mattress Factory in 2009. She expressed interest in creating an art history book for children about Warhol, and King challenged her to take it a step further by producing a limited-edition run of her book.

"Stefanie was so amazed that two faculty members bought her $40 book at Meeting of the Minds," King said.

Kim is now working toward a master's degree in education at Boston University and is a first-grade teaching intern at The Chestnut Hill School in Massachusetts.