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'Why I decided to come to Cornell'

As a high school student, Leeann Louis '09 dreamed of coming to Cornell University to study birds.

Leeann Louis  09 spots birds

Leeann Louis '09 spots birds with binoculars during a research trip to Milpe Preserve, a high-altitude tropical forest in Pichincha Province, Ecuador.

In fact, she was so in love with the idea that she spent part of her high-school career doing independent research based on the work of Cornell professor Kevin J. McGowan, one of the world's foremost experts on crows.

She calls her selection as a Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholar "a big part of why I decided to come to Cornell." It also enabled her as a freshman to work with McGowan on his research.

"I had spent so much time reading his papers," she said. "I felt as though I was meeting a celebrity."

Louis' story highlights how research opportunities can affect the school choice of talented students -- and the educational experience they receive after they arrive.

Whether students plunge into research programs led by faculty or launch their own independent projects, they face expenses beyond tuition, room and board. The costs of equipment, travel and off-site living also can stand between a student and the pursuit of knowledge.

That is why a vital goal of Far Above … The Campaign for Cornell is to increase support for student research. Doing so will provide more Cornell undergraduates with more freedom to explore questions and, in turn, strengthen the university.

Louis has seen her interests evolve in the past couple of years, and now she is working on projects related to functional morphology, or how anatomical features allow animals to accomplish different tasks. For example, she has worked with Kimberly Bostwick, the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates curator for birds and mammals, on studying the unique ability of the club-winged manakin, a small Amazonian bird, to create sound by beating its wings behind its back.

Leeann Louis  '09 photographs birds

Leeann Louis '09 photographs birds with high-tech cameras. See larger image

A presidential research scholarship, funded by trustee emeritus Robert J. '53 and Helen '55 Appel, gave Louis the means to visit the Ecuadorian rain forest, where she observed the birds up close and recorded their flight using high-speed cameras, infrared lights and a sound recorder. The research ultimately will contribute to scientists' understanding of bird flight and how the manakin is able to produce tonal sounds without relying on vocal cords.

Faculty often point to such research as an example of how undergraduates' fresh ideas infuse their own work with new energy and creativity. "Conducting research involves students in the production of knowledge and allows them to work side by side with faculty in an environment of intellectual discovery," said Provost Kent Fuchs.

"They become problem solvers," said Alan Hedge, professor of design and environmental analysis in the College of Human Ecology, who incorporates research into his undergraduate ergonomics course. "That, to me, is really rewarding because those students are going to go on and contribute a great deal to society."

When President David Skorton launched the current campaign in 2006, he described what he called the Cornell formula: "A combination of motivated, prepared students; talented faculty and staff; and the appropriate support structures and mechanisms, all driven by the desire to learn, to help, to solve, to unravel, to change for the better."

Skorton's formula encapsulates the three central priorities of the campaign -- students, faculty and facilities. Undergraduate research is one instance where all three converge.

A common vision led to research scholarship program's inception

The Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship program is a testament to what can happen when philanthropists and university leaders stand behind a common vision.

Since an anonymous gift led to its inception in 1996, the program has helped hundreds of undergraduates engage in scholarly research by providing them with up to $8,000 in research funds to be used over four years.

A little less than half of Presidential Research Scholars also receive supplemental need-based aid through the program, said its coordinator, Kristin Ramsay '88. The program supports about 200 students from all seven undergraduate colleges. Students are notified of their selection at the time of admission, and many point to it as a factor that made Cornell their first choice.

Ramsay says the program's approach to undergraduate research is unusual in its structure and the high number of students it supports. "There isn't a model nationally," she said. "I've been researching this lately. It's been encouraging to see the uniqueness of this program."

In 2006, the Cornell Presidential Research Scholars program received a major boost from members of the Cornell Board of Trustees who wished to honor outgoing President Hunter Rawlings. His passion for the program led to its being named for him, generating more than 30 gifts in his honor from trustees, trustees emeriti and friends of the university.

"We gave because we admired Hunter's leadership as president and were pleased to have this opportunity to honor him," said Ronay Menschel '64, trustee emerita, who made a gift with her husband, Richard. "One of Hunter Rawlings' significant legacies is the research scholars program that provides a special opportunity for undergraduate students to work with faculty on research. This was one piece of a greatly enriched undergraduate experience for all students."

Since its inception, the program has attracted more than $5 million in gifts and commitments, including a substantial gift by Ann S. Bowers '59, trustee emerita.

However, a large portion of its yearly budget continues to come from operating funds. The RCPRS has also relied on

$1 million annually in grant support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which will expire in 2010.

A goal for the Far Above ... campaign is to fully endow the program at $20 million, which would assure its continuation in perpetuity, Ramsay said.

"It has become more and more essential that philanthropic fundraising be directed at financial aid and at scholarships," Menschel said. "I'm pleased that the Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship program exists, and that it carries Hunter's name."

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