A lepidopterist, an astrophysicist and a dancer walk into a bar … No, it’s not a variation on an old joke. It’s an example of the variety of student researchers who get to know each other during the Butler Summer Institute (BSI)—and just one of the opportunities in a program chock full of them.

BSI, the University’s preeminent undergraduate research program, immerses students in the world of research. Delving into a topic of their choosing with a mentor they select, students become part of a community of artists, scientists, and researchers many say they otherwise wouldn’t have met, and they encounter approaches to research they never knew existed.

That community is one of the most unexpected yet appreciated benefits of BSI, according to two former Butler students, Rachel Urban and Josh Wanninger. BSI students work, eat, live, and spend free time together.

“My extracurriculars during BSI were talking with other students about their research or touring their labs,” said Urban, who studies environmental effects on butterflies (a lepidopterist). “I got to meet a lot of people I hadn’t met before because they’re not Biology majors. For instance, I talked to a Dance major about how they go about their research. It was nice to see how research is done outside a biology setting.”

Wanninger had never lived on campus while pursuing one degree in Astrophysics and Astronomy and another in Physics.

“I’m normally just talking about physics with people. During BSI, I got to hear about how others approach scientific research,” he said. “A Neurobiology student was working on a project with worms that may help with Alzheimer’s, music researchers working with bands, and a student who’s going to do science-based artwork on a new building on campus.”

Dr. Anne Wilson, Faculty Director of Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, said such interactions are an integral part of BSI.

“What you learn about the research efforts of others can inform what you’re doing. By living full-time on campus, students have the most access to each other, their mentors, and Butler’s research facilities. BSI lets them engage with the work in the same way a researcher in the real world does,” she said.

Mentor and Project of Your Choice
Just as in the real world, these student researchers select their own mentors and write their own proposals.

In refining an idea for Dr. Brian Murphy, Professor of Physics, Astrophysics and Astronomy, and Director of the Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium, Wanninger proposed and conducted research on RR Lyrae binary star systems, which help scientists measure distance and mass and contribute to our understanding of the early universe.

“Butler is one of maybe three research institutions doing this type of research. You need a scientific-grade telescope, and we have four through the SARA (Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy) consortium,” he said.

BSI was the answer to Urban’s plan: Complete a research project before graduation. She joined the lab of Dr. Andrew Stoehr, Associate Professor of Biology, who became her BSI mentor. Her primary interest is in understanding how environmental factors influence organisms, so she conducted research on wing patterns in the Colias genus of butterflies.

“I’ve done research before, but I’ve been more like a helping hand. I wanted a project that felt like mine, and BSI and Dr. Stoehr gave me that chance,” she said.

Flexibility a Real Strength
Urban and Wanninger illustrate the range of projects and workstyles BSI accommodates.

“I was happy I got to work like a typical 9-to-5 job in my lab. I work best when I have a specific schedule and expected to do a specific thing. The astronomy people were like, ‘I was here all night!’ I didn’t even think of that. I could pop over to my advisor’s office right when I made an error,” Urban said.

Wanninger was one of those ‘astronomy people.’

“I would try to come in every day at the same time, but if I had to be up all night operating telescopes in Chile, nobody was expecting me to be somewhere working the next morning.”

Dr. Wilson said this flexibility is a real strength of the program.

“Gone are the days when you have a person in the lab or the studio who is creating or researching all alone. We recognize that almost everything we do is going to be collaborative.”

Full-time Butler University students who haven’t yet earned a baccalaureate or PharmD degree may apply for BSI. Those accepted will receive a $4,500 award and free on-campus housing. To learn more and review past proposals, visit Butler Summer Institute or contact Dr. Anne Wilson at amwilson@butler.edu.