Photo caption: Senior Cameron Wingren (center) says being part of an international research team that helped to locate and excavate a historic site in Lithuania is shaping how he thinks about being part of a global community as well as his future career.
When Cameron Wingren came to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire as a freshman, he brought with him so many varying interests that it was hard for him to settle on a particular major.
However, as the Sun Prairie native considered classes that interested him, he often was drawn to courses in geography, a discipline where he could study a variety of topics within a single major.
“The field of geography has allowed me to study everything from glacial landforms to congressional redistricting,” says Wingren, who will graduate in December with a degree in geospatial analysis and technology. “I have studied these topics by reading about or observing them, and using technologies such as GIS, coding and satellite imagery. Geography is a subject that allows me to study whatever is interesting to me in whichever way I desire.”
His geography studies also offered him the kinds of outside-the-classroom experiences — including a research project that took him across the globe — that were so meaningful that they changed how he thinks about the world and his future career, Wingren says.
Joining an international research team
For several years, Wingren had heard about student researchers traveling to Lithuania to work with Dr. Harry Jol, professor of geography, and an international research team to locate and excavate historic sites that were destroyed during the Holocaust.
“I had seen presentations by students about the work and read some of the Lithuania-related posters that dot the hall of the geography wing of Phillips, but I never thought I’d get to be involved myself,” Wingren says of UW-Eau Claire’s Holocaust geoarchaeology program.
In the spring of 2019, Jol invited him to join the team and travel to Lithuania that summer. Jol wanted a geospatial major along who had the skills to collect ground-penetrating radar data but also could work with geospatial data and collect drone imagery of the various research sites, Wingren says.
In Lithuania, the researchers worked to uncover, document and preserve the remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilna, a grand religious institution in Vilnius. The spiritual and physical home of the Lithuanian Jews, the synagogue was among the oldest and most significant religious and cultural sites of Eastern European Jewry. it was ransacked during World War II and destroyed by the Soviets in 1956. An elementary school later was built on top of its remains.
At the synagogue site, Wingren helped collect GPR data, and also collect and work with geospatial data and drone imagery.
Building personal, professional connections
Wingren was a valuable part of the research team, says Martin Goettl, UW-Eau Claire’s geospatial technology facilitator who oversaw GIS mapping and drone flights in Lithuania.
“Cameron ingests information and knowledge well,” Goettl says. “He works very well with a team and as an individual, which will be a great asset to him both in life and in a career.”
He and Wingren continue to have great discussions about their shared experiences in Lithuania, Goettl says, noting that students often build valuable lifelong relationships with faculty and other mentors by participating in collaborative research projects.
The connections benefit the students, but also the faculty as their students go on to be leaders in their fields, Goettl says.
”I hope one day I am the one who reaches out to him for advice on something he has become an expert in,” Goettl says of Wingren.
It was incredible to travel to another country to be part of a diverse team representing many fields to work on a project that held cultural and historical importance to those who were personally involved in the project, Wingren says.
“Meeting people who had parents or grandparents who were victims of the Holocaust, and the oppression of the Jewish community in Lithuania humanized the project for me and made me feel proud of the work we were doing,” Wingren says. “Being able to help, in any way, a group of people that was so greatly wronged and oppressed was, in my opinion, the greatest accomplishment of all this work.”
The project also allowed him to meet and work with a variety of people, from filmmakers to archaeologists to geophysicists to historians, Wingren says.
A new documentary, "The Secrets of the Synagogue,” will tell the story of the professionals, scientists, university students and volunteers who came together to be part of the expedition, while also sharing the story and history of the Great Synagogue, a symbol of lost civilization.
Wingren is excited that the film — expected to be completed in 2021 — will allow more people to learn about what he calls important work being done to find and preserve these historic sites.
“Many people probably only think about the Holocaust as a terrible thing that happened 75+ years ago and give it no further thought,” Wingren says. “The repercussions of the Holocaust are still being felt today and need to be talked about, which this documentary will hopefully help achieve.”
Shaping his thinking and his future
Being part of the project taught him many things from a social and human aspect, and from a technical and scientific aspect, Wingren says of his work in Lithuania.
All those lessons are helping shape how he is thinking about his future career and life, Wingren says.
“I have learned how to work with a diverse team on a culturally sensitive project that has deep importance to many people,” says Wingren, who plans to go to graduate school after his December graduation. “I have also gained technical skills in fieldwork and data processing.
“All these skills and experiences will benefit me in my future employment, no matter what that may end up being. I hope to carry the lessons that I have learned from this project into whatever future education or employment I find myself in.”
On a personal level, the project has him thinking more about how to make positive change as a member of a global community.
“This experience really changed my view on the importance of standing up to those who preach hateful ideas or concepts,” Wingren says. “It made me realize, more than ever before, that being tolerant is paradoxical. We should all strive to be as tolerant of others as we can be, but we cannot afford to be forever tolerant of the intolerant.
“If there is a group, such as the Nazis in this case, that is calling for the oppression or even outright violence against a certain group of people they see as inferior, then it should be society’s duty to stand up to that group. I will never support suppressing or silencing speech, but once someone starts calling for oppression or violence, they have crossed a line. When that line is crossed, people need to be ready and willing not to simply silence or suppress the hateful speech, but to argue back and preach constructive instead of destructive ideas.”
Creating international experiences for students
Jol has worked on the research in Lithuania since the project began in 2015. Thirteen UW-Eau Claire students have traveled with him to Lithuania for weeks at a time to work at the site.
“UW-Eau Claire is recognized worldwide for its commitment to incorporating undergraduate students in challenging international research,” says Jol, who has led international research expeditions with students in several countries, including France, Lithuania, Latvia, Israel and New Zealand. “As we work with in-country partners, students experience the complexity and rewards of working in different cultural settings than they have experienced.”
Real-world research experiences, like the one Wingren had in Lithuania, are part of what helps prepare Blugolds to excel in and after college, Goettl says.
“Even graduate students may not get opportunities like this,” Goettl says of research projects like the one in Lithuania. “Including undergraduate students on projects like this exposes them to more technology and critical thinking.
“One of the best things about it is hearing students talk to each other about their experiences and how it changes their lives.”
Students who participate in international research grow personally and professionally, Jol says, noting that part of that growth comes as they complete their undergraduate research by disseminating results at professional conferences.
“It is often not until they present at a professional conference or get their first job or get a graduate school opportunity, that they realize their Blugold experience was unique and places them in good stead in this ever-growing global community,” Jol says.
Goettl credits UW-Eau Claire faculty — including Jol — with creating opportunities that transform their students’ lives.
“Without talented and connected faculty, none of this is even possible,” Goettl says. “The research faculty have done for years allows experiences like this to happen and to continue in the future.”
Making the most of being a Blugold
Wingren says he came to UW-Eau Claire because his older brother was a Blugold who talked about the strong sense of community he found on the campus.
He also knew of the university’s reputation for providing quality education at a reasonable cost, Wingren says, adding that the beauty of the campus also was a draw.
Now, as he prepares to graduate, Wingren says his UW-Eau Claire experience has exceeded the high expectations he brought with him to college.
“The international research project is a perfect example of the amazing opportunities that are available to students here at UWEC,” Wingren says. “Finding a field that I’m truly passionate about and am willing to work hard in is rewarding.”