Many forget or overlook the fact that Penn State's mission is "teaching, research, and service." But they would agree that when football is out of the equation, the university is seen as a place of far-ranging, first-class research. The school spends huge amounts of money on research, whether it's conduted by full-time researchers or its prestigious collection of faculty.
However, there is a group of individuals that mixes the teaching and research aspects of the mission: graduate students. These students, on the up hill trek toward a master's or doctorate, work tirelessly over long hours and usually on small stipends. They teach, they are taught, and they research, and each spring their work is on full display at the Graduate Exhibition held in the HUB-Robeson Center.
This year I volunteered to be a judge at the exhibition. Looking at my list of exhibitors, I was a little intimidated at what I was going to be faced with that morning. I got to judge four students' work, and the topics ranged from the detection of gene duplications to children's health care in America.
I walked into areas I knew very little about and walked out with not much more insight than I walked in with. But, that's not really the point. I walked out with a new understanding of the depth of research at Penn State, the depth of the passion and enthusiasm these students have for their work, and the depth of information humans live with every day—and how little of it we'll ever learn.
So, my initial reactions of "Who in their right mind would want to study this?" were cast aside. Instead, that feeling of cynicism was replaced by gratefulness. When I thanked the student for their time, I really thanked them for taking this obscure topic on. If not them, then who? It's because of these bright, impassioned students that the human race can even put a small dent into the huge mountain of information that we're faced with. It's because of the work they do that we have computers, space ships, and electric cars. These students and the students that became before them pave the way for a slew of things we take advantage of every day. That cell phone attached to your year, that was someone's research project. The NutraSweet in your Diet Coke, somebody researched and developed that. The qualities of caterpillar dung, yup…that too.
The exhibit is open to the general public, and I encourage every one to stop by and get an appreciation for what's happening on the other side of those brick walls you see on campus. The students are instructed to explain things in laypersons terms, so it won't be too far over your hear—maybe neck deep. Find a poster with the most confusing and complicated title, and chat up the student. You might not grasp the topic any more than you did before, but you'll get an appreciation for graduate work and the time and effort these kids put into their studies. Also, you'll see a huge part of Penn State's mission in action. So in reality, while you're walking among the over 200+ research projects, your blood will be as blue and white as ever.