It all began with a conversation.

When International Studies minor Michelle Klassen of Ellicott City, Maryland took Critical Issues in United States History with Dr. Peter Wallenstein, she knew she would have to produce a critical research paper. What she did not know was that this research would eventually make her the youngest student presenting at the April 2009 ACC Meeting of the Minds conference at North Carolina State University.

Klassen’s research began with an initial conference with Dr. Wallenstein, during which Klassen “began with an interest in rural health in Southwest Virginia” and after which she “kept hearing about widespread abuse and personal devastation associated with Oxycontin through preliminary research and [conversations with] friends that live in the area.” As she continued to discuss and refine her topic with Dr. Wallenstein, Klassen— only a freshman at the time—came to view her topic as one that would allow her to enter into the world of undergraduate research in an interdisciplinary way.

The best way to describe Klassen’s academic and research interests is, as she puts it, “interdisciplinary.” With a major in Agricultural and Applied Economics and minors in International Studies and Mathematics, Klassen is seeking out a truly liberal education. In addition to engaging in undergraduate research as a freshman at Virginia Tech, Klassen has also conducted climate research for a lobbying firm and is currently conducting research in Virginia Tech’s Agricultural Economics department. She plans to attend graduate school in Economics or Agricultural Economics and is also “interested in land and labor economics as well as food policy and security” – topics she hopes to research in the continuing years of her undergraduate education, graduate school, and, eventually, “in academia.”

Klassen’s research project started with a few, simple research questions concerning “the devastation of the prescription drug Oxycontin in Appalachia”: “Why Oxycontin? Why Appalachia? What can be done to curb the outbreak of abuse in this instance and in others [in Appalachia]? With no prior experience in research, Klassen began with the basics and then progressed to more complicated methods, “I took some very introductory-level skills and refined them into tools that have helped me to get paid positions researching and writing.”

Like many students approaching research for the first time, Klassen felt a bit overwhelmed as she began to delve deeply into her topic, but eventually channeled this into a rewarding research experience. “I learned how to do the basics like mastering databases and microfilm but also how to combine seemingly infinite perspectives (law, media, medical, anecdotal, statistical, etc.) into a clear and concise story-line that I could then analyze. It was a journey of putting pieces together until [the story] made sense enough that I could go look for more pieces.” After spending a month diligently focused on this research project, Klassen reflects how the paper came together – almost instantly, “After a month or so of preliminary research, I had a pretty good picture; paragraphs of my paper came together, and, suddenly, I had a story.” She credits Dr. Wallenstein, librarians, and her fellow students for helping and challenging her to create the project.

Even after legal suits both large and small against Purdue Pharmaceuticals in which the company admitted to “misbranding” Oxycontin as less addictive than it truly is, Klassen found that “rural America continues to be devastated by the abused prescription drug…”

According to Klassen’s findings, Purdue Pharmaceutical “aggressively marketed this time-released solution to pain management,” an effort that caused “the devastating effects of addiction to blast through Appalachia” almost as soon as the drug became available to consumers in 1995. In Appalachia – an area of coal miners and rural towns – there have been “staggering rates of crime, abuse, and death” related to Oxycontin. Because the individuals in these areas are so poor, they do not have access to adequate health care solutions for addiction to the drug. Klassen’s research findings indicate that “more government intervention is needed” in order to stop this “significant, illegal market [that] has become almost a secondary economy in the poorest, most rural parts of the United States.”

Even after legal suits both large and small against Purdue Pharmaceuticals in which the company admitted to “misbranding” Oxycontin as less addictive than it truly is, Klassen found that “rural America continues to be devastated by the abused prescription drug while congressional committees, state governments, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and several other institutions grapple with the future of the drug and of those areas struggling with [its effects].” Klassen believes in more effective monitoring of illegal use and distribution of the drug, while still respecting the needs of those individuals in need of “this powerful, pain-management drug.”

At the ACC Meeting of the Minds Conference, Klassen learned a great deal about research and how that research could fit into her undergraduate career. “Learning about research from eleven different [colleges and universities] allowed me to see what can be done in four pointed years in undergrad and where you can go from there.” From the overall experience of the research, Klassen notes the confidence she has gained in her own abilities and how the process “engaged [her] drive for learning and exploring.”

Reflecting on the process, Klassen noted the devotion and enthusiasm of the faculty about her project, “The passion for students that the faculty I worked with had is so evident in their [genuine] care for my work and success – whether through emails or meetings.” When asked what she would say to undergraduates considering research, Klassen answered, “Do it! Get to know faculty. Approach faculty with interesting research or talk to your more engaging professors about forming an independent study. Persevere and take your time enjoying the process of researching so that your work can be excellent. You can do more than you think.”


Photograph of Michelle Klassen

Michelle Klassen is a sophomore from Ellicott City, MD. She studies Agriculture and Applied Economics, concentrating in International Development and Trade with minors in Math and International Studies. While she is serious about preparing herself for graduate school and a career in economic or policy research, she takes joy in the day-to-day process of learning in my classes. She serves as Chaplain in Sigma Alpha, the professional agriculture sorority. Currently, she works for the Agricultural Economics Department doing agricultural law research under Dr. Geyer and tutors at the CAEE Tutoring center. She is actively involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, plays intramural inner tube water polo, and loves exploring all of the trails and caves around the New River Valley.