WESTERN STUDENTS SPEND SUMMER                                                                                                      

Image: Heather Sullivan and Paul Graham examine clay tiles

Heather Sullivan of Waynesville and Paul Graham of Franklin examine clay tiles collected during a recent research program at Western focusing on the preservation of Cherokee heritage and culture. Among the activities during the project, students sampled local clays to test traditional methods of clay processing, pottery manufacture and use.


CULLOWHEE – A group of Western Carolina University students spent much of the summer studying the diversity and preservation of Cherokee lands and heritage, a project that had them getting their hands dirty in an archaeological dig, conducting DNA studies of soil samples and examining microorganisms in elk droppings.

The seven undergraduate students were taking part in a 10-week interdisciplinary summer research project funded by a $40,000 grant from the National Conferences on Undergraduate Research. The program, designed to build upon Western's long-standing relationship with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, included students and faculty members from chemistry, anthropology, geosciences, natural resource management, Cherokee studies, environmental health and biology.

 “Cherokee heritage is an integral part of what makes the mountains of Western North Carolina so unique, and our students are in a wonderful position to learn about this place and learn from the people who have developed a way of life that had its origin here,” said Jane M. Eastman, assistant professor in the department of anthropology and sociology and director of the Cherokee Studies Program at Western.

“Even more than simply learning about Cherokee heritage and the Smoky Mountains, however, I hope our students may be able to contribute in some way to the exciting revitalization efforts in Cherokee,” Eastman said. “By taking a multidisciplinary approach, we hope to better understand aspects of Cherokee culture and their historic lands as they were in the past and as they are today.”

The research program began in May as undergraduate students participated in an archaeological dig at a site on the Western campus, excavating materials from a Cherokee village. Students went on to conduct individual research projects focusing on local environmental diversity or cultural heritage. These projects included sampling local clays to test traditional methods of clay processing, pottery manufacture and use; sampling elk dung to study microbes in the reintroduced herd in the Cataloochee area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park; and attending powwows to observe dance competitions and exhibitions.

Students also utilized microbiological techniques, including DNA sequencing, to compare bacteria present in artifacts and soil samples taken from the archaeological dig, as they searched for floral and faunal evidence to help reconstruct past environmental conditions and cultural uses of natural resources at different times in the past.

Student participants presented posters on their projects in public sessions in Cherokee, and will report on their findings at the annual National Conferences on Undergraduate Research meeting in April 2006. Western will be eligible for another grant of $22,500 next year upon successful completion of the first year of the program.

Out of 30 proposals submitted nationally, Western's program is one of only two proposals selected for NCUR funding through a program supported by the Alice and Leslie E. Lancy Foundation.

NCUR is a not-for-profit organization committed to the promotion of undergraduate research and creative activity in all academic disciplines and at all institutions of higher learning. The NCUR/Lancy program encourages colleges and universities to devote more attention and resources to undergraduates who show promise of exceptional achievement. The program focus is on helping build communities of student and faculty scholars spanning the academic disciplines but working on a unifying theme.

The Lancy initiative is named in honor of Leslie Lancy, a successful electrochemist and businessman whose estate provides the funds and whose memory inspires the effort to launch this program. After putting himself through school, he founded Lancy Laboratories, which earned an international reputation for technical innovation. Throughout his life, Lancy hired a legion of bright, young students with limited financial resources who, like himself years earlier, were working their way through school.

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Last modified: Tuesday, September 13, 2005
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