Shorter University pre-med major Rachel Butler, a senior from Eva, Ala., received the Best Student Presentation Award at the recent Southern Forestry and Natural Resources Management (SOFOR) Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Conference. Butler was the only undergraduate presenting at the conference, and she topped five graduate students to earn the prestigious honor.
“Winning the award was a big surprise,” Butler said. “I was personally pleased with my presentation, mostly because it was my first one, but wasn’t sure how it compared to the other presenters. It was an honor to receive the award. My research advisor, Dr. Crosby, won the same award in 2009 and getting to follow in his footsteps was very rewarding. I was the only undergraduate that presented at the conference so I was competing against graduate students. To have been able to do that well was a big confidence boost. It really confirms that hard work and dedication pay off in the long run.”
Dr. Michael Crosby, assistant professor of physical science at Shorter and Butler’s research advisor, explained that all of the presentations were evaluated by judges with extensive experience in research, higher education, GIS, and remote sensing. “She was the only undergraduate in the running and represented herself and Shorter University extremely well. For an undergraduate to put the time and energy into developing and working on a project and then to have the poise to get through a presentation and receive an award for it is an exception and not the rule.”
Crosby added, “When I won the Best Student Presenter award, I was 28, working on my Ph.D., and it was not my first presentation. Rachel is 22, with no background in GIS/Remote Sensing, particularly applied to natural resource management. For her, or any student anywhere, to earn an award like this is truly outstanding. The people who commented on her work and complimented her for it are people that know their stuff and people for whom I have a great deal of respect.”
Butler’s presentation was titled “Determining Changes in Forest Composition in an Old-Growth Forest Using Remotely Sensed Data.” The study assessed changes in the types of trees growing in Marshall Forest Preserve using satellite images. The research compared images taken in two different years (1989 and 2011) to determine compositional changes; Butler also conducted a field survey of plots in the forest to confirm information gathered from the remotely sensed data.
“I began this study because I wanted to do undergraduate research while at Shorter,” Butler said. “For my senior seminar presentation I was given the option to do a review of current scientific literature or conduct my own research; I chose to do my own research because I wanted to have the full experience of scientific investigation and be able to be as familiar as possible with the topic on which I would be presenting.”
The study, Crosby said, grew out of Rachel’s curiosity and allowed her to synthesize learning from across numerous science courses.
“Rachel learned how to accomplish things beyond what is offered in the classroom to help her evaluate a problem — her problem, one that she developed and is now evaluating,” Crosby said. “Certainly she was prepared, having taken statistics, biology, botany, ecology, etc., but this work required her to draw from all those subjects and put together many pieces. Our open-door, one-on-one teaching approach helps foster student creativity and can lead to the kind of success that Rachel achieved.”
Crosby said Rachel demonstrated a strong spirit of perseverance, overcoming a twisted knee, a mild attack by yellow jackets to which she is allergic, and a bout with a heart arrhythmia during the field research.
“She never once said ‘no more’ or chucked it in,” Crosby said. “Graduate students, natural resource professionals — these are the people who do this kind of work. Yet, here is an undergraduate, pre-med Biology major learning about something outside the body, or cells, or biochemical signals, or immunology, or any of the other things necessary for someone interested in learning about medicine. She’s a go-getter. I can’t figure out if it is a natural curiosity, a beautiful mind, or a plan to take over the world; Rachel Butler is special — that’s the best I think I can say it.”
Crosby added that, while Butler’s accomplishments are outstanding, they represent the commitment of students in Shorter’s science programs. “We have several students in our department who are pursuing independent research projects. I am supervising one more myself, and there are at least three others actively working on research. There were also several very good ones last year who had great success here and at regional conferences and who have now gone on to the workforce, graduate school, and professional programs. All of them work hard and deserve that ‘go-getter’ label.”
Dr. Kathi Vosevich, associate provost and dean of Shorter’s College of Arts and Sciences, said that this type of outstanding training in the sciences is one hallmark of the Shorter experience. “Over the past three decades, 86% of our applicants have been accepted to medical schools. An impressive 91% of our pharmacy school applicants, 87% of our applicants to physical therapy and occupational therapy programs, and 86% of our applicants to physician assistant programs have been accepted. In addition, our graduates are being enrolled by many of the nation’s most prestigious graduate programs in the sciences. Others are being hired by a wide variety of companies and organizations. The strength of our science program is built on the university’s commitment to offering excellent classroom and laboratory experiences while also requiring students to conduct research as part of their academic training.”
For Butler, presenting her research before an audience was a growth opportunity. She said, “I was the very last presentation of the day, so I spent the day anticipating it. At these conferences, you’re presenting to an audience who is very knowledgeable about the subject matter and whose members have worked in the field for a long time. My biggest fear going into the presentation was that someone would poke holes in my presentation or that I would not be able to answer someone’s question. After I started presenting, I was able to calm down and enjoy the process. I realized that the audience is just genuinely interested in what you have to say and they really do want to see you do well.”
In the spring semester of 2015, Butler presented her research during the 2015 Biennial Southern Silvicultural Research Conference, an experience that she said helped prepare her for the SOFOR presentation. “In the spring, I presented a poster. For the poster sessions, the presenters stand with their posters at the same time, and people are free to drop by and approach you one-on-one to ask questions. It is a more relaxed environment than when you’re standing in front of a seated audience speaking. The spring did help familiarize me with the format of a research conference and kind of prepare me for what would be expected of me when I gave my presentation at SOFOR.”
Butler is currently the treasurer of the Alpha Chi STAR Chapter at Shorter and earned a medal of honor for her service. She will graduate from Shorter in May with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and a minor in Chemistry. She plans to begin medical school in the fall.
Founded in 1873, Shorter University is a Christ-centered, four-year liberal arts university committed to excellence in education. The Princeton Review annually includes Shorter on its list of best Southeastern Colleges. Shorter is a member of the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). The university offers traditional bachelor’s degrees in 40 areas of study, online courses and degree programs, undergraduate programs for working adults, and four master’s programs. Learn more about Shorter at www.shorter.edu.