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Faculty Scholars Urge Students to Find 'Sense of Purpose' in Research

St. Albert's Day 2017A record-breaking number of student poster and oral presentations capped Creighton University’s 21st annual edition of St. Albert’s Day/University Research Day.

Some 128 posters and another 38 oral presentations heralded the day when the University community gathers to celebrate the knowledge its students and faculty are putting out into the world. And in ever-increasing quantity and quality, too.

During his keynote address accepting one of two 2017 University Research Awards, Creighton School of Law professor Michael Kelly, JD, talked about his own beginnings as a scholar, saying that even while he labored over research, he wasn’t always quite sure toward what end.

“I knew I was doing research with a purpose,” said Kelly, whose research has led him into areas of the law such as prosecuting corporations for genocide and examining property claims by people who fled revolutionary Cuba. “But like many young academics, I wasn’t sure what that purpose was.”

In coming to Creighton, Kelly said, he found his purpose when his humanitarian approaches to the law intersected with the University’s Jesuit mission.

Kelly said he sees similar moments shining through in the research conducted by undergraduates and graduates at Creighton.

“I think a lot of the students who are putting this knowledge out into the world and cementing Creighton’s reputation as a leader in research are finding that same feeling,” he said. “At some point during their scholarship, they’ll find that it dovetails with the Creighton mission. They’ll find that what they’re doing is in the interest of helping people. And they’ll move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.”

Creighton’s research output continues to expand with more initiatives to bring undergraduates into the scholarship sphere. The Center for Undergraduate Research and Scholarship has seen an influx of students delving into heady topics, while the graduate and professional schools are also extending their reach in some of the most crucial areas of discovery.

Nancy Hanson, PhD, professor of medical microbiology and immunology, and also the recipient of a University Research Award for her work with antibiotic resistant superbugs, said Creighton attracts a high-caliber, intellectually capacious student body across all nine schools and colleges.

“The support students receive and give to faculty researchers is invaluable and provides them with great experiences,” Hanson said. “And that goes for Creighton University as a whole. This institution has been so supportive. When you love what you do and have that kind of support, you can do important things, things that help drive science and knowledge forward.”

And as research, by nature, means venturing into uncharted water or plumbing deeper, Creighton has been determined to foster innovative thought, leading to new ways of looking at the world.

In Hanson’s lab, she, along with other faculty, post-doctoral researchers and graduate students, are coming up with new ways of looking at basic science and translational research to combat a growing worldwide problem in antibiotic-resistant organisms, a scourge cited by the United Nations as a major global health crisis claiming 700,000 lives annually. If left unchecked, superbugs could kill more than 10 million people annually by 2050 and cost upwards of $100 trillion.

Hanson’s lab is looking at the problem at the molecular level, an approach that first garnered skepticism and outright derision, but Hanson persisted in her efforts and is now working with drug companies to help create tools for monitoring and detecting antibiotic resistance.

“Scientists must think outside the box,” she said. “If you come up with an idea and someone tells you, ‘No,’ but can’t give you good justification, keep that in your head. You might just use that someday to do something really important in the field.”

Kelly’s research has led him down other paths toward helping assuage global calamity, including bringing companies that are implicit in genocide to justice, settling property claims for people who fled the Cuban Revolution of 1959, and helping establish a constitution in the Kurdistan autonomous region in Iraq.

Getting to the bottom of genocide, like that which occurred in Sudan’s Darfur region, prompts questions of treating companies as people in an international court and how far to pursue causality in genocide.

The effort has had far-reaching consequence in law, business and in humanitarian work.

“We’ve been able to take the tools of genocide out of the hands of people who commit it,” Kelly said. “At the end of the day, it’s about asking, ‘How can we make life better for people?’”

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