Caroline Brinster blends research and recreation through grant

by University Communications,

Willamette students participated in a wide array of internships and research projects this summer. This is the last of a five-part series highlighting their experiences.

Caroline Brinster ’16 spent her summer hanging out in the Columbia River Gorge, an 85-mile-long National Scenic Area between Oregon and Washington that is filled with hiking trails, waterfalls and gorgeous natural views.

It sounds like an ideal vacation for someone who loves the outdoors. But Brinster wasn’t just lounging in the sun — she was conducting research on behalf of a nonprofit that works to protect and enhance the Gorge, providing valuable data that could be used to influence lawmakers and citizens about the economic benefits of recreation in the area.

She spent an entire week staying at a high-end lodge on the Washington side of the Gorge while she visited trailheads to survey hikers, and she worked one-on-one with nonprofit executives, making connections she hopes will help her in a future career.

And the entire thing was paid for by a grant she earned from Willamette after just one year of study.

“I didn’t even dream of that before I came to Willamette,” she says. “I had no idea that Willamette even offered those kinds of opportunities to underclassmen.”

A Grant-Funded Researcher

Brinster was one of six students this summer to earn a College Colloquium Student Research Grant to undertake research or creative projects between their first and second years at Willamette.

Their topics were based on the theme of their College Colloquium, a first-semester class that introduces students to the liberal arts academic setting. Students can choose from about 40 Colloquium topics; Brinster’s focused on the management of natural resources in the Gorge.

As someone who grew up in Portland and moved to the Columbia River town of Scappoose for high school, Brinster was excited to examine a place that was in her own backyard.

“What surprised me in the class was learning about all of the different political issues happening in the Gorge, and all the different needs and wants among the parties there,” she says.

Environmental and earth sciences professor Scott Pike, who taught the course, assigned three major papers during the semester. The third was a mock proposal for the student research grants.

“Caroline found a project she was passionate about, pursued it, wrote a very strong proposal and won the award,” Pike says. “Just in writing the grant, she’s already learned a tremendous amount that will help her as she applies for future scholarships, study abroad programs or internships.”

Making Connections

Inspired by a class visit from Kevin Gorman, executive director of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Brinster contacted the nonprofit for project ideas. Along with Friends leaders, she created a proposal to collect data for a project called Gorge Towns to Trails, which is working to create a comprehensive trail system linking Gorge communities.

Brinster surveyed hikers at several trailheads about how often and why they use the trails, and where they spend money while visiting the Gorge. At the end of summer, she created an economic report for the Friends board.

“We’re excited that Willamette gave Caroline the opportunity to work for us,” says Renee Tkach, project manager for Gorge Towns to Trails. “The information she is collecting is important because it helps us start a conversation about the economic benefits that hiking trails bring to communities in the Gorge.”

With her plans to major in economics and one day work on environmental policy as a lawyer, Brinster says the project gave her invaluable experience and connections for the future.

“This project has given me a chance to rethink my education and career goals. And being able to get a grant from Willamette so early on has definitely helped me to believe in myself more. I look forward to applying for more opportunities and doing other meaningful projects in the future.”


Colloquium Research Grants

Six rising sophomores at Willamette spent their summer doing research and creative projects through College Colloquium Student Research Grants, which provide up to $3,500 for work relating to the theme of their College Colloquium courses.

Their projects ranged from commissioning graffiti artists to create works for an exhibition, to investigating antibiotics in post-agricultural and urban waste water, to creating a documentary about poverty in a small town.