Like many students, Anne Thomas likes to spend her summer travelling somewhere new. Her excursions have included visits to New Zealand, Fiji and Oregon’s Cascade Mountains. In Anne’s case though, these trips have all been in the name of furthering her research at Brigham Young University (BYU), founded in 1875 in Provo, Utah in the western United States.
This exceptional young woman is on the move again; on completing her double major in Biodiversity and Conservation and Bioinformatics she headed to Cambridge University on a prestigious Gates Scholarship, one of only 35 awarded in her year to US undergraduates.
“More than anything, Anne has taken every opportunity that has been given her and maximised it – whether that’s field research, lab work or finding time to be first cellist in our baroque ensemble or president of our environmental club,” said faculty mentor and BYU Associate Professor of Biology Richard Gill. “She’s the embodiment of the experiential learning we want every student at BYU to experience.”
INSPIRATION FOR LIFE
Having every opportunity to succeed and being inspired in their life’s work is central to what BYU strives to achieve for its 32,000 students. That is why this institution, one of the largest private religious universities in the US, works hard to create opportunities that will ignite the students’ passion for knowledge, such as the Inspiring Learning Initiative. Launched by BYU president Kevin J Worthen, the programme focuses on innovative teaching, mentoring and experiential learning that includes gaining hands-on experience. This could range from teaching refugees English in the Middle East to working with small-scale farmers in South America to enable them to export their fruit harvests. This effort is bolstered by a specially created Office of Experiential Learning that helps connect students to experiential learning activities so that everyone, no matter what their economic background, can benefit from internships and volunteering schemes.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) sponsors BYU, a partnership that helps in the reduction of tuition costs. The church’s standards also inform the university’s honour code by which students pledge to abide, including living a chaste life, abstaining from drugs or alcohol and not drinking tea or coffee. The majority of those who attend the university follow the Mormon faith, and therefore actively choose to study in an environment that supports their beliefs, according to BYU spokesman Todd Hollingshead. Abiding by the code is not a hardship, he says, but instead a lifelong commitment that students embrace willingly.
A MISSION FOR CHANGE
When followers share their beliefs around the world it is known as a mission, which is a rite of passage for young Mormons to get out into the world. The minimum age for serving missions has recently been lowered to 18 for men and 19 for women, which has dramatically changed the dynamics at BYU. It means that the majority of students have served abroad, including women, who are joining in increasing numbers. “It means they come back focused and may look towards study with a more humanitarian angle,” explains Hollingshead.
Finding solutions to global issues is what drives both students and staff at BYU, whose graduates include professional golfer Mike Weir
and violinist Lindsey Stirling. One such ongoing research project is about loneliness and its impact on health, led by psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad. Her research, which has been instrumental in raising awareness of the issue, suggests that loneliness and social isolation may represent a greater public health hazard than obesity. Professor Hold-Lunstad gave evidence to the US Senate Aging Committee in 2017 and she was instrumental in the UK government appointing a minister for loneliness.
“Professor Holt-Lunstad has been instrumental in raising awareness among people on what has become an epidemic,” says Hollingshead. “It’s impactful work like this that can make a difference to people’s lives for the good.” Other innovations pioneered by BYU include producing 3D images that “float in thin air”, as Princess Leia did in the original Star Wars film. Publishing its results in the journal Nature in 2018, the research team was led by Daniel Smalley, a holography expert and professor of electrical and computer engineering.
NURTURING CREATIVE BUSINESS IDEAS
Turning research into reality is a test of any discovery – and it is a skill that BYU excels at. With a highly entrepreneurial culture, the university is ranked in the top five of institutions in the US for its pioneering work on new technology, products and companies. That is the conclusion of a report by the non-profit think tank the Milken Institute, rating BYU ahead of Stanford and MIT. “The high ranking is a validation of all the hard work done by staff and students at BYU,” says Hollingshead. Students are encouraged to work on their business ideas through a number of programmes offered by the university, as well as via networking groups.
As with life at any university, the focus is not solely on work but also on enjoying non-course-related activities. With its 560-acre campus nestling at the foot of the dramatic Wasatch mountain range, BYU provides plenty of opportunities for students to experience the great outdoors. Many of the student body are actively engaged in pursuits such as hiking, mountain biking and camping when they are not studying for any of the 270 undergraduate, masters and doctoral programmes offered by BYU.
With a new engineering building and a recently completed College of Life Sciences centre, BYU is constantly striving to improve the educational experience of its students and ensure they learn in the best possible environment. The Mormon faith is not the only shared belief among students and staff at BYU. They also have confidence that learning leads to inspiration. “BYU has a great support system for undergraduate research, and my faculty encouraged me to get involved starting my freshman year,” says Anne Thomas. “Having a mentored research experience exposed me to the great research world beyond BYU and has led to additional opportunities.”