Unusual Opportunities Lead Students in Unexpected Directions

Thursday, July 26, 2012
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Tyler Burks '12

Tyler Burks '12

From his first year at UNH, Tyler Burks ’12 assumed that he’d major in the biological sciences, conduct research in his field, and go on to a Ph.D. program. He pursued exactly that path — until an international experience the summer after his junior year awakened interests in the humanities and led him to rethink his future. “It was unexpected,” he says of discovering new academic passions.

Burks wasn’t the only one whose intellectual journey has taken some unexpected turns. Approximately 60 percent of undergraduates change majors while at UNH, according to Registrar Kathie Forbes. That group is roughly divided between students who declare a formal major after entering as “undeclared,” which is considered a change of major, and those who switch from one major to another.

The latter occurrence “is sometimes the result of poor academic performance, but for a more motivated group because of interests that develop while here in college,” says Judy Spiller, associate provost for academic achievement. “Many students through the experiences they have with faculty in their majors and required courses have that epiphany that lends coherence to their education. Often that comes about as part of an internship or a study-away program.”

For Burks, it happened during the nine weeks he spent in Europe on a grant from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research. He worked with an interdisciplinary, international team at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, tackling multiple problems in avian immunology. While his time in the lab was illuminating, perhaps the most transformative part of the experience was a four-day trip he took on his own to Florence, Italy. There he visited the Uffizzi Gallery, the il Duomo cathedral and other sites featuring the works of Renaissance artists. “I’d read about these places my entire life. I’d always wanted to go there and to actually do it was amazing. There’s a certain rawness and pureness to the way they approach art that I feel is a little lost today.”

When he got back to campus, Burks took courses in philosophy and art – areas he hadn’t had time to explore because of his early involvement in research. (He’d previously received two other Hamel grants.) In a woodworking class, he applied general principles he’d learned from his scientific training, including a systematic approach, to create sculpture that incorporated movement. And for the first time, he began thinking about where his biological research might be headed, asking himself if it was a positive direction and if he wanted to be part of it.

Burks, who majored in molecular, cellular and developmental biology, decided to spend an additional semester at UNH to earn an art minor. He now believes that his original plan to get a Ph.D. in the sciences may be too narrow given his other interests. “I think no matter which route I take it’s going to be an interdisciplinary one,” he says.

George Adams

George Adams

Though also interested in other disciplines, Burks’s classmate George Adams made a different discovery while at UNH. Inspired by his high school teachers, he started as a music education major. However, his experience doing independent research under music faculty Rob Haskins and Ryan Vigil helped him realize that he enjoyed scholarship and wanted to become a professor. He changed his major to music liberal studies, which emphasizes critical thinking and writing about music.

It was a good fit. On a Hamel Center fellowship the summer after his sophomore year, he analyzed two pieces by composer Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians and Variations for Winds, Strings and Keyboards – using beat-class theory, which had never before been applied to those compositions. Adams went on to receive a second Hamel grant to conduct research at the Basel, Switzerland, based Paul Sacher Foundation, which had acquired original notebooks belonging to Reich, and to study at the University of Southampton under David Nicholls, a well-known scholar of American music.

Also important to Adams’s decision to enter academia was his participation in the McNair Scholars Program, which offers graduate-school preparation for minorities and for first-generation undergraduates with high financial need. Last spring, Adams attended a national McNair conference at the University of Maryland, where he presented a linguistics paper on Reich’s Come Out. The piece is unusual in that it incorporates the recorded speech of Daniel Hamm, a black teenager wrongly accused of murder in the aftermath of the 1964 Harlem riots. An attendee of several undergraduate conferences, Adams says the McNair gatherings are special. “People express a different level of interest in and support for your work.”

This fall, Adams will begin a Ph.D. program at the University of Chicago, where he plans to study American experimental and classical music with a focus on influential post-World War II composers such as Reich and John Cage.

Originally published by:

UNH Today

Written by Sonia Scherr ’13MFA