The Holster Scholars Program: Funding the future 

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Freshman year is never easy. You move to campus for the first time, meet a whole new group of people and try to get your college experience started off right. You try to gain your footing in a new environment and start trekking your course throughout the endless frontier of college. 

One thing that most freshmen are not thinking about are large-scale research projects.  

It’s common convention to consider research as more of a late-college enterprise, something to consider once you’re an upperclassman and well-versed in your field. However, a special group of freshmen students think a little differently. 

The Holster Scholars Program is a first-year undergraduate research program that allows ambitious honors freshmen to use their first summer at university to explore a personal project.  

The Daily Campus was lucky enough to speak with a few individuals connected to the Holster Scholar program: coordinator Dr. Vin Moscardelli and two members of the 2021 Holster Scholars cohort, fourth-semester biomedical engineering major Sanjana Nistala and fourth-semester mechanical engineering major Ethan Wicko. 

“I LEARNED ABOUT THE TECHNICAL INFORMATION THAT I SET OUT TO STUDY AND A LOT ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS IN TERMS OF CREATING A QUESTION AND FIGURING OUT THE STEPS YOU NEED TO SOLVE THAT QUESTION. THE PROCESS OF ORIGINAL IDEAS AND THE FORMATION OF THAT PROCESS ENABLES YOU TO GET TO THE CREATION OF THAT IDEA.”

Ethan Wicko

“The Holster Scholar program is a selective enrichment opportunity available to first-year Honors students who hope to pursue research, creative or design projects, in the summer following their first year,” Dr. Moscardelli said. “The program is the result of a substantial and very generous gift by Bob Holster and his wife Carlotta Holster. Bob’s idea was that if students had the opportunity early enough in their careers to do a kind of ‘deep dive’ into something they thought they might be interested in, it might be transformational because it happens so early in their careers.” 

And transformational it has been for the past Holster Scholars, giving them the opportunity to spend their first summer engaging in comprehensive research, possibly enlightening them on a different career path. 

Nistala spent last summer investigating the chemical composition of a biomaterial called a hydrogel and evaluating its degradation, ultimately trying to figure out a more effective drug-delivery system for osteo-arthritic pain management. 

“I learned a lot. I learned a lot of technical lab techniques that I hadn’t really had that much exposure to,” Nistala said. “That’s knowledge that I will take with me as I pursue a career in biomedical engineering. I also learned a lot about the research process and how to think in terms of a research project. If something goes wrong or something goes right, what’s your next step and what are you trying to learn from whatever it is you do? I learned a lot about myself and my own interests. I was able to narrow it down to research for a career and I dropped pre-med.” 

However, not every Holster Scholar decides to shift career paths after conducting research. 

Wicko used his summer to assess the feasibility of a new bicycle transmission system, diving into belt dynamics with a diverse set of parameters for the belt. 

“I learned about the technical information that I set out to study and a lot about the creative process in terms of creating a question and figuring out the steps you need to solve that question,” Wicko said. “The process of original ideas and the formation of that process enables you to get to the creation of that idea.” 

Dr. Moscardelli, however, believes that we should not evaluate the success of the program based on project success, but rather the value that the total experience delivers to first-year students. 

“By the end of it, if you’ve done it right, you’re going to have a pretty good sense of whether this is something you’re excited about or not, as long as you go all-in,” Dr. Moscardelli said. “That’s the one thing we ask of our students. Students inevitably, projects don’t work out, results just turn out to be null. We do have great success; some of them end up being patented or turned into publications. But at the end of the day, what we really want is for students to go all in and we want them to figure out ‘is this for me?’ and then make a decision at that point.” 

The Holster Scholars program is just a first-year program, but the experience does not end there. Many students continue their research, diving into new areas of interest using their knowledge and experience as a launching device towards greater exploration. 

Holster is viewed particularly as a research opportunity but it actually falls under the Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships. It is as much a scholarship program as it is a research program. 

“We actively encourage students in the Holster Scholar Program to keep working with our office and to use that familiarity and to use that early start as a way of sort of propelling them into being competitive candidates for national scholarships,” said Dr. Moscardelli. “ONSF is open to everybody; this office serves all the students, graduate and undergraduate, of all the campuses, but the Holster Scholar program is part of our outreach, without a doubt.” 

Every fall, a new batch of first-year students apply to become a Holster Scholar finalist and register in a spring semester seminar run by Dr. Moscardelli. Through that seminar, students work on their finalized research proposal and are run through a gauntlet of interviews which ultimately culminates in a decision on acceptance into the program in April. 

“[PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS] SHOULD DEFINITELY APPLY, IT’S A REALLY GOOD OPPORTUNITY WHEN YOU’RE A FRESHMAN BECAUSE I DON’T [KNOW] IF THERE’S A LOT OF OTHER RESEARCH GRANTS AND FUNDING PROGRAMS AVAILABLE TO FIRST YEAR [STUDENTS]. YOU ALSO GET A LOT OF SUPPORT FROM DR. MOSCARDELLI AND … YOUR MENTOR. IT’S VERY VALUABLE THAT WAY.”

Sanjana Nistala

“I would say that [prospective students] should definitely consider it,” said Wicko. “If you’re very curious, if you’re creative or excited about learning and want to learn outside the classroom and want to meet a ton of people who have similar interests, in terms of valuing intellectual pursuits. I would definitely apply, don’t be scared of failure, even though that’s coming from someone who didn’t get rejected, I think definitely trying and failing is better than being scared of failure.” 

“[Prospective students] should definitely apply, it’s a really good opportunity when you’re a freshman because I don’t [know] if there’s a lot of other research grants and funding programs available to first year [students],” Nistala said. “You also get a lot of support from Dr. Moscardelli and … your mentor. It’s very valuable that way.” 

Every year, the tenacity and dedication of the students amazes Dr. Moscardelli. 

“It’s almost unbelievable how far these students come,” Dr. Moscardelli said. “They show up trying to figure out where their classes are, then coming up with an original idea and a question they want to ask and get enough courage to go talk to a professor about it, which is no mean feat, that’s a big deal, that’s a big threshold. Then to continue to stick with it? … That’s incredible when you think about it. Then to watch how they go from the interview in the spring … and then to see the polished finished product in the fall. It’s a transformation … seeing students prepare and deliver and perform and feel really proud and for their parents to be there and their mentors and their friends. To me that’s just a really special kind of moment.” 

For more information on the history and tenants of the Holster Scholars Program visit https://honors.uconn.edu/holster-scholars/.  

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