No question is too big — or small — as students tackle summer research

Much of the most significant research can begin with a deceptively simple question: Why, for example, do we tend to pick up a coffee cup from the side as opposed to the front? For most of us, human motion is far removed from conscious thought, but such seemingly basic questions can turn out to have exceedingly complex answers — and important real-world implications.

That was the starting point this summer for Emma Geduldig ’13, Sarah Andrews ’14 and John Wildman ’15 as they explored movement and motor control with James L. Ferguson Professor of Psychology Jonathan Vaughan, who has devoted previous research to the topic. Their study of kinematics, or mechanical motion, may eventually lead to a better understanding of how paralysis and motor movement-related diseases such as Parkinson’s affect the human body.

Summer 2012In the sciences, Geduldig, Andrews and Wildman were among more than 80 students pursuing projects in archaeology, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, geoarchaeology, geosciences, mathematics, neuroscience, physics and psychology. Many of these projects will lead to student presentations at professional meetings and papers co-authored by students. The Hill in midsummer may lack the electricity of a crisp fall afternoon or the intensity of finals week, but make no mistake — the learning continues. This year, more than 120 students ignored the call of beaches and boardwalks to remain on campus and take the opportunity to work closely with faculty members in doing advanced research across dozens of disciplines.

Summer 2012In the social sciences and related fields, 21 students conducted research with 13 faculty members as part of the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center’s Research Fellowship Grants and Group Grants. Topics ranged from environmental justice in Brooklyn to agrarian land reform in Honduras, from domestic ­violence in Turkey to emergency-room profiling in low-income neighborhoods, and from the teaching of literacy to the analysis of voter behavior.

Funded by the Levitt Research Fellows Program, summer research is open to rising juniors and seniors who wish to spend the summer working in collaboration with a faculty member on an issue related to public affairs. Students receive a summer stipend and spend 10 weeks working intensively with a faculty mentor. Those selected for the program are required to provide a written assessment of their work at the completion of the summer and to participate in a poster session in the fall. Levitt Fellows are automatically eligible to participate in the Levitt Scholars Program, in which they discuss their research in local high schools.

Twenty students, meanwhile, earned Emerson Summer Grants, allowing them to receive a stipend and work collaboratively with a faculty member on areas of interest. Projects ranged from a study of South Korean foreign policy to a reinterpretation of the pastoral tradition in poetry and from excavation research in Crete to creative writing as therapy for the developmentally disabled.

Eli Bunzel ’13, whose summer research with Dominic Veconi ’15, Assistant Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang and May graduate Leonard Teng ’12 involved examining single nucleotide polymorphisms, found that one of the most rewarding aspects of summer research was being able to “immerse [himself] in the lab mentality by gaining confidence, thinking analytically, and making sure that all of the minute details are correct.”

For Levitt Summer Research Fellow Julian Aronowitz ’14, flexibility and the capacity to think across disciplines were crucial. Working with Elizabeth Jensen, the Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Economics, the math major crossed into economics and computer modeling to pose a question that subjects a media catch-phrase to analytical scrutiny: Exactly when does a financial institution become “too big to fail”?

His initial goal was to create a formula that would define that category; but as the project continued, he found that the sheer number of variables shaping the interconnections among financial firms was too great. He modified his research goals to learn about the 2008 financial crisis “while using and improving [his] math and computer science skills.” Aronowitz came away from his project with an appreciation for the opportunity to explore economics without the constraints of a formal classroom and to “contribute mathematical perspective to ­economic policy decisions.”

— Contributing: Patrick Bedard ’14

Follow the money: New grants and what they’re doing

  • Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Skipper, Stephen Harper Kirner Professor of Computer Science Stu Hirshfield P’99,’00,’06 and Research Associate Leanne Hirshfield ’02 have been awarded a National Science Foundation grant of $217,282 for a cross-disciplinary effort to pursue improved neuroimaging with an upgraded EEG (electroenceph­a­lo­graphy) system. Their goal is “a more realistic view of how the brain works in both space and time under conditions of natural stimulation.”

    Previous technology has made this process impossible; conventional magnetic resonance imaging measures brain activity poorly across real time, while conventional EEG has poor spatial resolution. Recent technology and software advances, however, provide spatial resolution in EEG that is comparable to that of MRI. “The resulting high spatial and temporal resolution data could put scientists and clinicians in a position to understand the brain in more realistic terms if established methods were available to analyze such multivariate data,” the researchers note in their project summary, and “could lead to better predictors, diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

    The project also will enhance the educational experience of Hamilton students — who have a “unique opportunity among undergraduate institutions to participate in lab-based curricula” — by allowing them to conduct experiments using “naturalistic stimuli” rather than the “tightly controlled and usually reductionist stimuli” made necessary by conventional apparatus.
  • Assistant Professor of Physics Natalia Connolly, Assistant Professor of Biology Wei-Jen Chang and Associate Professor of Computer Science Alistair Campbell were awarded a $100,000 grant from the Research Corporation’s Multi-Investigator Cottrell College Science program for their project Novel computational techniques for investigating gene interaction networks in Ichthyopthirius multifiliis and its endosymbiotic bacteria. The fish parasite, known as “Ich,” is the primary cause of the “white-spot” disease in freshwater fish.

    As humans depend more and more on farmed fish as a source of dietary protein, outbreaks of Ich, which can kill as many as 18 million fish in one incident, hurt both food supplies and the economy. Treatments of Ich infections are limited due to a lack of understanding of Ich at the molecular level.
  • Professor of Physics Gordon Jones and Associate Professor of Physics Brian Collett were awarded a $114,315 grant from the National Science Foundation for their continuing project RUI: The aCORN Experiment to Measure the Beta-Neutrino Asymmetry in Neutron Decay.

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