Emily Nettesheim ’19 has heard her generation called lazy, entitled, and selfish. Her research—which she presented in Washington, DC, in late April to an audience that included both of Indiana’s Senators—suggests that those labels are misguided.
Since sophomore year, Nettesheim has been examining why so many students participate in Dance Marathon, the annual fundraiser benefiting Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, a non-profit organization that raises funds and awareness for more than 170 pediatric hospitals across North America. This year at Butler University alone, more than 500 participants raised over $365,000.
“Especially in light of how millennials have been portrayed negatively in the media, I knew the passion, drive, and sacrifice I was seeing in Dance Marathon was counter-cultural and special,” says Nettesheim, a Health Sciences and Spanish double major from Lafayette, Indiana.
In a survey of Butler, Ball State, and IUPUI students, she found that an overwhelming majority participated in Dance Marathon because they were acting on their values—and because participants have the opportunity to meet families affected by the hospital, and visit the hospitals for tours to see first-hand where the money is going.
“Millennials tend to be motivated if they can see the impact of the cause,” she says.
More than 85 percent also said they benefited from participating by developing maturity and specific skills, such as communication and empathy, that they can use later in life, according to Nettesheim’s research.
Nettesheim’s story starts not with Dance Marathon—her high school didn’t participate—but with her interest in Indianapolis-based Riley Hospital for Children, the beneficiary of Indiana Dance Marathon events. When her parents’ friends asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said she wanted to be in the medical field and work with kids.
In 2015, when she arrived on campus, she heard about Dance Marathon almost immediately at an event about campus organizations.
“It sounded like a great opportunity to get my foot in the door somewhere I wanted to work,” she says.
She joined the Riley Relations Committee as a first-year student—the committee works directly with Riley families—and fell in love with the people, and what Dance Marathon stood for. Sophomore and junior years, she served as the director of Riley Relations, and senior year became president.
In fall of her sophomore year, she started thinking about a subject for her honors thesis. She met with Pharmacy Professor Chad Knoderer.Knoderer had never taught Nettesheim, but after talking to her and hearing about her interest in Dance Marathon, he suggested that it could be her focus.
“As I researched more,” Nettesheim says, “I realized that nonprofits across the country are experiencing issues trying to recruit donors and volunteers, and that the Dance Marathon movement is the No. 14 fastest growing peer-to-peer campaign in the nation. It became really evident that something different and unique is happening. So I wanted to see if I could figure out why—or at least quantify it a little bit.”
She and Knoderer worked together on how to design the thesis, roll it out, and make it realistic to be completed. With help from Butler’s Center for High Achievement and Scholarly Engagement (CHASE), everything came into focus.
Normally, the final step in the work Nettesheim was doing would be to write and turn in her honors thesis. And she did that—a 35-page paper.
But she wanted to do more. So early this year, she submitted an abstract to present at Posters on the Hill, the Council on Undergraduate Research’s annual undergraduate poster session on Capitol Hill. Members of Congress and their staff gather at the presentations to learn about the importance of undergraduate research through talking directly with the student researchers themselves.
The selection process is extremely competitive, but Nettesheim beat the odds—becoming the first Butler student in memory to be invited to participate.
“I can’t say definitively that she’s the first,” says Rusty Jones, the CHASE Faculty Director, “but she’s certainly the first that I know of. What’s especially great about the Posters on the Hill event is that they are highlighting the importance of undergraduate research to our lawmakers in DC.”
Part of Nettesheim’s goal was to detail her findings, but she was also in Washington to share the value of undergraduate research with members of the Senate and Congress, and their staffs.
Nettesheim’s father worked at Purdue University, and being around research there got her interested in it from a young age. She chose Butler precisely because she wanted the opportunity to do her own projects.
“It’s so cool that even at a small university, there have been so many opportunities for me to get involved in research,” she says.
In addition to delving into students’ motivations to participate in Dance Marathon, Nettesheim also has worked in the Neurobiology Lab at Butler with Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Kowalski. She’s studying microscopic roundworms known as C. elegans, which have nervous systems similar to humans.
“It’s exciting to share the impact of research in my life and be the face behind the cause of research,” Nettesheim says. “I’ve had much more of an opportunity to get involved and have my research be my own here than I would have had the opportunity to do elsewhere.”
And that, says Knoderer, is the takeaway: Butler encourages and supports undergraduate research.
“If you’ve got an idea, go for it,” he says. “The sky’s the limit. I knew what Dance Marathon was from working at Riley Hospital for a number of years, so I knew the organization and what it was, but I didn’t necessarily know how to approach her question. But there are enough people to help support a student and see their project through.”