Honors Program students in an Exercise Science course walk across the Big Four Bridge in Louisville.

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Honors Program: Launching pad for ambitious students

Spring 2022

By Carla Carlton 

In her senior thesis four years ago, Bellarmine Honors student Molly Phelps analyzed themes of gender and spiritual possession in The Tale of Genji, an obscure medieval novel written by a Japanese lady-in-waiting. Then, like many other Honors Program students, she submitted the thesis to ScholarWorks, a digital collection that preserves intellectual research and lets the public download it. 

And download it the public did—more than 6,700 times as of March 2022. 

“My mind is blown thinking about it,” said Dr. Jon Blandford, an associate professor of English who was Phelps’ thesis advisor and is in his sixth year as director of Bellarmine’s Honors Program. “Our students are contributing to knowledge out there in the world with their undergraduate projects here at Bellarmine. That's something I'm super proud of.” 


“They go above and beyond to learn as much as possible, simply for the sake of learning.”

For the 2022-23 academic year, 13.4 percent of Bellarmine’s undergraduate students are enrolled in the Honors Program, more than double the national average of 6 percent. 

Honors students take specialized versions of core curriculum classes that are limited to 15 students each and focus more on discussion than lecture. They are required to take a minimum of five Honors courses but are encouraged to take more. The capstone of the program is the senior thesis.  

Because Honors students represent more than 40 majors—computer engineering, biology, environmental science and business administration among them—their research covers a wide spectrum. It’s also often more advanced than one might expect at the undergraduate level. 

St. Louis senior Lauren Henry, for example, is focusing on finding a genetic marker for polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), an understudied and hard-to-diagnose women’s health issue that can have severe effects including infertility. 

“The possibility of finding a genetic marker for such an enigmatic and insidious health condition has the potential to be groundbreaking from a research standpoint, and clinically relevant for so many women,” said Dr. Carrie Doyle, assistant professor of Biology and Henry’s faculty advisor. 

Other Honors students this year are exploring the effect of warming ocean temperatures on a bellwether species; the psychological and physical effects on children of a physical activity program during in-patient cancer treatment; online communities for adults with ADHD; the effect of copyright law on modern jazz musicians; and how drinking more non-fluoridated bottled water affects dental health, among other topics.   

“These are projects that are driven by the students’ own passions, their own interests,” Blandford said. “They are going to transform these students into the types of people they want to be next. 

“To me, that's the starting point of thinking through what would be a good project for one of these students: Who do you want to be next? Where do you want to be next? Is it a graduate school, a professional school? Is it being a creative artist of some sort? And what kind of project can we create to launch you into that future?” 

A recent gift from two alumni is providing more rocket fuel for the journey.   

The Schmidt Honors Program Fund 

Schmidt, Joe and AngelaJoseph ’68 and Angela ’69 (Petchara) Schmidt (pictured at right) met at what was then Bellarmine-Ursuline thanks to a scholarship that brought Angela Schmidt to Louisville from her native Thailand. 

“Growing up on opposite sides of the globe, we were both determined to achieve a quality higher education as the key to our futures,” the couple wrote in an email. “With our Bellarmine education as a solid foundation, leading to law and MBA degrees from Columbia University in New York, we have achieved much success and 50-plus years of happiness together. Now, we fervently wish to help create similar educational opportunities for others.” 

The Schmidt Honors Program Fund, which the couple established last year, helps students with costs associated with completing their research and traveling to conferences to present it. They had previously established the Angela Petchara and Joseph W. Schmidt Exchange-Student Fund, an exchange program between Bellarmine and Thammasat University in Bangkok. This fund allows Bellarmine students to travel to Thailand for a semester of life-changing educational and cultural experiences and students from Thailand to travel to the United States to study at Bellarmine. 

Nearly 30 Honors students have received money from the Schmidt Honors Program Fund so far, Blandford said. 

Lauren Henry used her award to purchase the lab equipment necessary to collect data for her PCOS project. “Genetic analysis requires a lot of lab work to isolate and amplify the DNA samples,” she said. “Special kits are needed, which were all provided thanks to this fund.” 

“Knowing that my research and hard work will eventually reach outside of the Bellarmine community has been a driving factor in my putting the best effort into every minute I spend on my project.”

Anne Pearson, a Louisville senior, was able to purchase books that she needed for her thesis, in which she explores the relevance today of Thomas Merton's solutions for racial inequality. “Part of my goal with this project was to parallel Merton's solutions with more recent authors who have written on the same issues in the 21st century,” she said. “However, because many of these books have captured the popular imagination over the last few years, I wasn’t able to find them within my price range.” 

And Aditya Singh, a senior from Alpharetta, Ga., used his award to travel to Birmingham, Ala., to present his research on how cultural differences transform Western films remade in Bollywood at the Southern Regional Honors Council conference. 

“Knowing that my research and hard work will eventually reach eyes and ears outside of the Bellarmine community in such a concrete way has been a driving factor in my putting the best effort into every minute I spend on my project,” Singh said. 

In addition to presenting their work before an external audience at conferences, Honors students can “network with really smart folks from all over the region,” Blandford said. “Their world gets a little bigger, and they get to make some connections. I think that is a valuable part of their journey.” 

Going above and beyond 

In addition to research, the Honors Program provides small, discussion-based interdisciplinary seminars, experiential learning opportunities and short-term study-abroad courses in places such as Peru, Belize, London and Rome—where students gave an Honors Program T-shirt to Pope Francis five years ago. (We hear he wears it every day.) 

For each incoming Honors class, Bellarmine gives five full-ride Bellarmine Scholars Awards and five full-tuition Bellarmine Fellows Awards. Recipients are chosen during a weekend competition involving a faculty interview, an essay and a roundtable discussion. In 2020, a record 55 percent of the students who competed ended up enrolling at Bellarmine, or 54 of 99. 

Not all incoming students  see themselves as Honors Program material, though, so every spring, Blandford asks colleagues and deans for names of high-achieving first-year students and then recruits as many sophomores into the program as possible.  

“Maybe they came from high schools where they didn't have as many advantages, or maybe they don't feel like they fit some sort of imaginary honors profile,” Blandford said. “But we are 100 percent committed to being welcoming and inclusive. That requires some lateral admissions and some intentional outreach on our part. And we work pretty hard to do that.” 

The Honors Program also relies on faculty across the university to provide Honors class content and to serve as advisors for students’ senior theses. “I couldn't ask for anything more from the faculty here. They really do so much to provide students with these kinds of next-level experiences,” Blandford said. 

“I think sometimes the students don't recognize how special that is—but I do, because I've worked elsewhere and it’s not the norm everywhere.” 

Faculty say they enjoy working with Honors students. “They go above and beyond to learn as much as possible, simply for the sake of learning,” Doyle said. 

Dr. Jennifer Barker, an associate professor of English and director of the Film Studies minor who advised Singh on his thesis, echoed that. “I enjoy working with Honors students because they are curious about the world, care about their work, and are excited about learning,” she said. “They are active participants in their own education.”  

 

Lauren HenryLauren Henry 

Biology Pre-Med major; minors in Biochemistry and Spanish 

Project: Finding a genetic marker to help identify Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) and treat it early. PCOS is a very common yet understudied women's health issue that has extreme side effects for women, including infertility.  

Inspiration: Many close family and friends struggle with PCOS, as do I. Women's health is overlooked in many ways, so I wanted to use this thesis as a chance to do my part and contribute to women's research and betterment of treatment. 

Honored: I knew Bellarmine would challenge me academically while also giving me all the support and attention needed to succeed. The Honors Program gave me an amazing support system from my first day at Bellarmine that continues to grow. I can honestly say that at a larger university I would never be able to do an independent research project as easily as I have been doing here at Bellarmine. 

Anne PearsonAnne Pearson 

Majors in Political Science and Psychology; Criminal Justice Studies minor  

Project: I'm looking at how Thomas Merton’s criticisms of white liberals and his solutions for racial inequality continue to be relevant today and how his position as a white man in the Catholic Church influenced his ability to diagnose the societal problems of the 1960s. 

Inspiration: I was introduced to Merton's main work on racism, Letters to a White Liberal, just as the protests of 2020 were making headlines. I found his words to be so accurate that several times I had to put the book down and process what I'd just read. I felt that I could contribute a younger perspective and show how Merton continues to be relevant today. 

Honored: The most valuable thing I've gotten from participating in the program didn't come from the classroom, but from the Honors Program’s connection with a community partner called the National Millennial Community, a group of students from around the country who are given the opportunity to meet with Fortune 500 executives and share their perspectives. This organization has pushed me outside of my comfort zone and helped me learn to speak my mind, all while building an invaluable network. 

 

Aditya SinghAditya “Adi” Singh 

Biochemistry & Molecular Biology major; English minor 

Project: I’m examining the film remaking/adaptation process as it occurs across cultural boundaries, with a specific focus on Western films remade in the Bollywood film industry. Using the films Once Upon a Time in the West, Rebecca and West Side Story, along with their respective remakes Sholay, Kohraa and Josh, as case studies, I am focusing on male and female representation on screen and how the societal and cultural differences between countries act as filters through which a lot of film language, content, and style is transformed in the process of adaptation.  

Inspiration: Around the time I entered junior year I viewed The River by Jean Renoir and The Darjeeling Limited by Wes Anderson, portraits of life in India that set me thinking about film as it exists across cultural lines, especially about how it encourages a dynamic flow of ideas across parts of the world. Eventually I tied this curiosity to my desire to learn more about my native Indian culture.  

Honored: The most valuable thing I have gained from this program has been friendship with much of the Honors community, whose love for learning has allowed me to engage in discussion and application of lecture topics outside of class, and whose support—both emotional and competitive—has kept me focused and driven during my time here at Bellarmine. 

 

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