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Western Undergraduate Research Symposium returns with locally relevant student projects on Friday, April 22

April 16, 2016

Andrea Walk, who is
Andrea Walk, who is now attending the University of Wyoming, delivers a presentation during the 2015 Symposium.

Western Wyoming Community College and the Hay Library invite the public to attend the Third Annual Undergraduate Research Symposium on Friday, April 22, beginning at 10 a.m. in Room 1302 at the Rock Springs campus. Students will deliver presentations based on research projects they have conducted this academic year. As with last year, some of the presentations will focus on local and regional history, issues and personalities.

At 10 a.m., history student Melia Dayley will present “Shepards of Change: The Matthew Shepard Legacy,” in which she discusses the hate-crime narrative that immediately grew to define the tragic murder of University of Wyoming college student Matthew Shepard, who was gay, despite some indications that his killing at the hands of two young locals may have been the result of a botched drug deal rather than animosity toward his sexual orientation.   

“The vicious murder of Shepard, a gay Wyoming college student, garnered attention regionally and nationally as a hate-crime narrative took hold,” Dayley states in her presentation abstract. “Amidst overwhelming feelings of confusion and sadness, Wyomingites struggled to make sense of such a cruel act in their state, a state with an internal identity rooted in a myth of equality. Headlines told stories of an act of hate by two unruly and uncivilized young men. Politicians, churches, and college students all responded to the news reports by speaking out and creating anti-hate-crime activist initiatives. 

“Yet, in addition to the hate-crime narrative, there was evidence that this murder was nothing more than a drug deal gone wrong,” she explains. “This perspective, however, never gained wide acceptance, as the story of hate had already grasped the public's attention and Shepard had transformed into a martyr for equality in the Equality State. The mass media, religious and secular institutions, and politicians created this hate-crime narrative by reacting to the traumatic memories and responses immediately following the incident.”        

At 1 p.m., in “Lord of the Winds: The Untold Story of Finis Mitchell,” history student Savannah Mitchell will bring to light a more sensitive and personal side of the legendary Wyoming legislator and mountaineer that she says is not necessarily reflected in the state’s public memory of him.  

“Given that museums, newspapers, and public ceremonies have largely created the story of Finis Mitchell, it is not surprising that they focused primarily on his public identity,” states Mitchell, who is a descendant of Finis, in her presentation abstract. “Indeed, this collective memory identifies him as being the Lord of the Winds, for his outstanding work and love for the Wind River Range. Yet, an examination of the family documents, from photographs to oral histories, reveals there is more to his identity, and therefore more to this story. This new, more complex story arises because the collective memory of Finis Mitchell paints him solely as a Wyoming mountaineer and legislator, at the expense of his personal narrative and family folklore.”

Also of interest to lovers of Wyoming’s outdoors is biology student Monique Weaver’s 10:30 a.m. presentation “Examination of Pinus sp. Genetics in Relation to Dendroctonus ponderosae Resistance,” which looks at the characteristics of trees that are resistant to pine bark beetle infestation versus those that succumb to it.   

“In the Rocky Mountain forests, pine bark beetle is the second-highest cause of tree mortality,” Weaver states in her abstract. “Needles from both infected and uninfected trees were collected for DNA. The DBH, height, age, canopy cover, and surrounding tree density were also collected to see if any of these factors were linked to infestation. DNA was extracted from the needles and will be examined using PCR and Electrophoresis. Future results will look for a gene that is present in the uninfected trees but significantly absent in the infected trees.”

Students will also present their research posters in the WWCC Atrium from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. Among the many research projects highlighted are “Cokeville’s Real Miracle: Reconciling Traumatic Memory,” by history student Savannah McCauley, who researched the post-traumatic experiences of children who were at the 1986 Cokeville Elementary School bombing, nearly all of whom suffered emotional trauma that affected their lives even as adults.

“As the papers and news outlets celebrated that no lives were lost, the survivors had to cope with living in constant fear and mistrust,” McCauley states in her abstract. “They managed to overcome this trauma mostly by turning to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and coming together as a community. Over time, through therapy, the support of the church, and learning to accept the media’s intrusion, the survivors of the Cokeville bombing managed to forgive the (perpetrators) and heal.”

Another poster presentation of local interest is geography student Laurel Brinkerhoff’s project “Boom or Bust: The Effects of Oil on Schools and Population Density in Rock Springs,” which examines the impact of low oil prices and declining oilfield employment on enrollment in local schools. And, anthropology student Peter Kisiel presents information on “What Lies Beneath: Comparing Different Methods of Geophysical Exploration in Archaeology,” in which he investigates the difference in functionality between Magnetometers and Ground Penetrating Radar, in order to determine the best equipment for various scenarios within archaeology, such as artifact identification, depth of artifacts, and matrix material.

These are just a few of the many timely and fascinating topics that Western students have investigated during the current academic year. Many of the students who will present at the Undergraduate Research Symposium will go on to present at the University of Wyoming’s Undergraduate Research Day later this spring. The symposium’s purpose is to provide student researchers with an opportunity to present their discoveries to their peers, instructors and the community.   

The Symposium is free and open to the public, and community members are encouraged to come out and learn about the fascinating topics that Western’s students have been studying this semester. 

For the complete schedule, visit us at

For more information, contact Audrey Harton at (307) 382-1661 or
(307) 382-1600 or toll free (800) 226-1181