The Colgate Scene
September 2004

No summertime blues
Student summer research at Colgate

Darren Karn '05 analyzes water samples he collected from different spots in Lake Ontario. A geology major from Toronto, Canada, Karn spent 10 weeks analyzing the chemistry of each sample to estimate evaporation rates on the lake. Learning and tracking Lake Ontario's evaporation rates will help scientists gain a better understanding of climate change and the impact of global warming in the region. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

Instead of scooping ice cream or mowing lawns, nearly 100 Colgate students spent the summer of 2004 peering through microscopes and analyzing academic texts. The students were participants in Colgate's summer undergraduate research program, which is designed to give them hands-on experience collaborating with faculty members.

Research topics span all the disciplines and majors, and projects under way this year involve female artists of the Southwest, hydrogeology, corporate governance reform in Asia, sacred music, the warming of Antarctica, and the effects of sleep loss on children's cognition.

The student researchers worked side by side with faculty members on their projects for eight to 10 weeks, depending on the breadth and depth of their studies. They received weekly stipends of $375 that helped defray the costs of living in partially subsidized campus housing or in the village of Hamilton for the summer. The university, corporate or foundation grants, individual donors, or individual faculty members funded their work.

"Student scholarship done in collaboration or close consultation with faculty is often the defining moment in a liberal arts education," said Jill Tiefenthaler, associate dean of the faculty. "Our program shows our students how to apply what they learn in the classroom every day, and helps them develop new skills that they will be able to use in the workplace in the future. Since many students go on to present their findings at national conferences or even publish their research, it can also be a very empowering experience for them."

Emma Barth '06 processes some of the rock samples she collected from the northwest Adirondacks. Barth was looking for evidence of the mineral monazite, which could help determine the geological age of the region.

Jason Kaplan '06 collects banded mystery snail (Viviparus georgianus) from Woodman Pond, a short distance from campus. The history and chemistry of the pond's water is indicated by the annual growth rings on the snail's shell.

With light and mirrors
Physics majors Dan Barrie '05 and Krystle Williams '06 helped to design, assemble, and test a terahertz spectrometer, an instrument that measures the properties of materials at very high frequencies. The spectrometer will be used by Beth Parks, associate professor of physics and astronomy, with her research in the area of solid-state physics. Parks will use it to study the electronic properties of carbon nanotubes.

Carbon nanotubes, or cylindrical molecules of carbon, are very strong and exceptionally good conductors of heat, making them potentially useful in advanced computer processors, lubricants, fuel cells, and drug delivery systems, to name a few. They are considered the latest in nanotechnology applications.

"A lot of physics majors spend time at Colgate during at least one of their summers conducting research," said Barrie, who is from Albany, N.Y. "I was particularly excited about staying here and studying because it gives me the chance to see the things I've learned about in the classroom work in a practical setting. Doing research this summer has given me the chance to learn about some contemporary physics issues that I wouldn't have known about otherwise."

"I knew that this would be good experience for graduate school, because this is what you do as a physics student in grad school; it's mainly research," said Williams, who is from Trinidad. "I wanted to get some experience to see if this is the path I want to go in so I can make a decision on graduate school."

Parks echoed those sentiments. "I've found that bringing students into the lab this way makes science more real to them, and shows them how the skills they learn in the classroom are actually used in research," she said. "It's a great learning experience."

A visit to Yale University early in the summer reinforced the uniqueness of the experience, said Barrie.

"There was a physics professor there who has a similar setup to what Professor Parks has," Barrie said. "It was amazing to realize that this Yale professor had a couple of graduate students working for him who have an exhaustively larger knowledge of the material than we do."

Williams said that the assembly process for the spectrometer began in earnest after she and Barrie spent two weeks getting acclimated to Parks's laboratory. The two students were charged with studying the previous setup of the lab, followed by two weeks of making the initial calculations.

"We had to do all the calculations to order the right parts, do the actual design, figure out what's going to go where, and what we needed to do for it," said Williams. "After we did all of the initial stuff, we started building it, and that was a task in itself, because you have to align everything exactly. We were working with precision equipment, such as mirrors and a laser. Everything needs to be correctly aligned."

One balky mirror took an entire week to align correctly, she added.

"Towards the end of the summer, we were calibrating a lot of things, and it required a great deal of feel for the instrument," said Barrie. "Having a set order of steps is important, and it took a while to figure it out, because you try and you fail, and then you try another way, and fail again until you finally get it down to something that works well."

Anne Cybenko '05 peers into a cage holding several zebra finches. A psychology major from Hanover, N.H., Cybenko assisted Richard Braaten, associate professor of psychology, with his studies of birdsong and memory in zebra finches this past summer. The birds learn songs from their fellow finches between 35 and 65 days of age, during what is considered a particularly sensitive period of their cognitive growth. Somewhat counterintuitively, the birds tend to sing songs that they hear fewer times during that sensitive period. Cybenko is varying the amount of times the finches hear the songs in an effort to determine the relationship between exposure and memory. Other than songbirds, whales, dolphins, and humans, very few species of animals are capable of vocal learning. Discovering what enables the zebra finches to memorize songs will help scientists gain a better understanding of how animals — and, ultimately, people — process sound.

Physics majors Krystle Williams '06 (left) and Dan Barrie '06 in a machine shop constructing mounts for reflectors on a terahertz spectrometer the two assembled this past summer.

Rocks and snails
Emma Barth's summer research took her to the side of the road -- literally.

"No high-tech trekking through the middle of nowhere," said Barth, a junior geology major from Canastota, N.Y. "Just get up in the morning, and pick what road you want. You just drive along, and whenever you see an outcropping, you pull over, make measurements, and get samples."

Barth assisted Bruce Selleck, professor of geology, with his studies of geological formations in New York State. She searched for evidence of monazite, a mineral that formed along an ancient fault zone. The presence of monazite could help to determine the temperature, pressure, and age at which faulting activity occurred in a region of the northwest Adirondacks estimated to be more than a billion years old.

For Barth, that meant spending about a week and a half in a 20-square-mile area gathering samples from road cuts, outcroppings where rocks are exposed due to blasting or bulldozing to make room for a thoroughfare, before heading back to Selleck's lab at Colgate.

Working in the lab for the remainder of the summer, Barth prepared samples selected by Selleck by crushing them into powder to be examined by x-ray analysis. Monazite contains the element cerium -- the most abundant of rare earth metals -- whose presence would increase the likelihood that the sample contained monazite.

This was the second consecutive year that Barth had worked with Selleck. She spent the summer of 2003 measuring sediments in a local stream.

"[Undergraduate research] is something I discovered after I arrived at Colgate. I had no idea that so many undergraduates did research," Barth said. "It's better than working at the mall, or something like that, because you're actually doing something that will help you get further in life, something that will look good on your resume, and shows that you have good experience if you're looking to apply for a job."

There has been one other lingering aftereffect to this past summer's experience, Barth said.

"I love geology because it's all around you," she said. "I can't drive on a road the same way anymore."

Jason Kaplan, a junior geology major from Dix Hills, N.Y., also worked with Selleck, but only a few miles outside of Hamilton, and under much wetter conditions.

Kaplan assisted Selleck with his studies of the chemistries of local bodies of water. For Kaplan, that meant donning a swimming suit and wading into Woodman Pond wielding a butterfly net to snare specimens of Viviparus georgianus, or the banded mystery snail.

"It's not for anyone who's squeamish, because you're stepping on these lake sediments which are really muddy and silty, your feet squish down, and you feel like there are things crawling on your legs; there's seaweed on your arms and different sorts of rooted plants all over you," said Kaplan. "You just have to freeze everything out and say to yourself, `Okay, I'm here just to collect snails.'"

Kaplan examined the calcium carbonate shells of the snails because the history and isotope chemistry of the pond's water is reflected in annual shell growth bands formed during the life of each snail. A growth ring with a high level of isotopic oxygen, he explained, indicates a year with lower-than-normal rainfall, and more water evaporates from the pond. Conversely, a low level of isotropic oxygen indicates heavier rainfall. Analyzing the chemical record of shells and the water could help scientists gain a better understanding of the region's climate changes and possibly even global warming in general.

"Basically, the isotope value is kind of like a marker," said Kaplan. "We're trying to correlate the isotope values to the changing weather patterns during the summer growth months for these snails."

"The geology department has a long history of involving undergraduates in research, and that experience has given our graduates a head start on graduate school and careers in geology and other fields," said Selleck. "Direct engagement in real research teaches skills that really can't be learned any other way."

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