The Colgate Scene
September 2006

Learning by immersion

Charuni Gunaratne '07 spent the summer studying crayfish behavior with psychology professor Ann Jane Tierney. Understanding more about the simple nervous system of crayfish could one day shed light on the more complex human system. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]

After researching summer research at Colgate, we reached the following conclusions:

  • Students throw themselves completely into their projects, freed by the absence of the usual course and classroom requirements.
  • Faculty members provide a great deal of individualized instruction.
  • Honing invaluable laboratory and critical thinking skills, students get a real taste of the demanding nature of research.
  • Collaborative work among professors and students can shape and re-define projects, many of which will continue during the academic year.

In essence, it's about focus. The ability to take advantage of summer's slower pace to invest oneself completely, whether in a prickly scientific question concerning carbon nanotubes or an examination of the influence of groundbreaking film director Lev Kuleshov.

"Real progress on research is greatly facilitated by full immersion in a problem, which is only possible in the summer," said Lyle Roelofs, provost and dean of the faculty.

But what also excites Roelofs is the synergy between summer and academic-year research.

He likes how the summer setting allows for the opportunity to delve into a particular issue, while the academic year gives the continuing work a chance to mature and to be documented, forming the basis for possible publications and for discussion at conferences.

"Students here get the chance to push at the boundaries of knowledge in such different settings," he said. "It really broadens their experience and prepares them for all types of future endeavors."

Here are just a few examples of the projects undertaken by the 118 students who conducted research on campus this summer.

Fighting. Establishing hierarchies. Recognizing dominance. Retreating to shelter. Sound like a description of the activities of the Roman army circa 250 B.C.? Not quite; they are just some of the behaviors that Lauren Donnelly '07, Charuni Gunaratne '07, and Vanessa Monroy '08 (pictured) observed in crayfish this summer.

The trio, who studied the crustaceans for two projects for psychology professor Ann Jane Tierney, was looking for aggressive behavior in several different situations -- during the reproductive and non-reproductive phases of the crayfish's lives, or when the animals were injected with a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, for example. The goal was to gain a better understanding of the simple nervous system of crayfish, which could one day shed some light on the more complex human system.

The best part of the experience, they all agreed, was Tierney's infectious enthusiasm about their studies. "She just loves this stuff," said Donnelly. "When you're as passionate about your work as she is, it spreads."

Ocean spray
While some students may have sat on beaches feeling the salty breeze on their faces, Hannah Kim '07 experienced a tiny -- literally -- bit of the ocean herself.

The biochemistry major, though, was in land-locked Hamilton, and she wasn't lifeguarding or bagging rays. Rather, Kim, from Fort Lee, N.J., spent her days with chemistry professor Ephraim Woods ionizing sea mist particles with a laser in a Wynn Hall laboratory.

Their project focused on a particular kind of aerosol particle found in marine environments, called a reverse micelle. The particle, which has a water core and an oily coating of organic matter, is generated by the action of waves, and is found in ocean spray.

Since not much is known about the reverse micelle, Woods and Kim sought to learn more about it, such as its purpose, behavior in humid and dry air, and whether or not it condenses in the atmosphere and forms clouds -- like water droplets.

"We wanted to characterize the chemical environment of reverse micelles -- to essentially figure out what they're like," Woods explained, noting that the findings will help researchers understand the interaction of these particles with other airborne substances, including pollutants. "Ultimately, though, I hope that our findings will contribute to climate modeling."

Kim's goal for the summer was perhaps a bit simpler: to hone her research skills in preparation for the hours of lab work required at medical school. Collaborating on such a complex project with Woods, said the aspiring pediatric oncologist, did just that. "The experience definitely prepared me to be more independent as a scientist," she explained.

Woods echoed Kim's sentiments. "In addition to answering our research question, the objective of summer research in general is to enable students to make new science themselves -- to contribute," he said. "Working on a project like Hannah's involved a lot more than just following flow charts and testing algorithms -- it required critical thinking and problem-solving skills that any good doctor possesses."

He added that Kim, like many other Colgate undergraduates, sometimes came to the lab in the mornings with her own ideas about the project. "I like when that happens -- when a student thinks about her work in her spare time and then says, `Let's try this.' That's what makes my job interesting as a scientist and a professor. That's what makes it fun."

Bailey Rogers '07 spent her summer adding a new layer to a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when humans view films.

In a famous 1918 experiment with cinematic montage, Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov proved that viewers bring their own emotional reactions to the images they see. Kuleshov used one picture of a famous actor's face and alternated it with other images. The audience interpreted the actor's expression to be different each time it was shown, depending on what they believed he was viewing -- his hunger while he "looked at" a plate of soup, grief towards a child's coffin -- when in fact, each shot of his face was identical.

Rogers wanted to know how music might come into play with the "Kuleshov Effect." Her research project was "an experiment to see which component is more powerful in eliciting a response in the viewer -- sound or image," she said. Working on a series of music videos, she made multiple videos for each song, with the aim of manipulating viewers' responses to the song based on the images, such as pairing a chaotic image with a relatively peaceful song.

The hands are symbols of creation, self, and human identity, said artist Liana Hadarean '09. She said that her summer project, which will continue this fall, gave her the chance to push the boundaries of her capabilities.

Hands-on project
It was an assigned project last semester that shaped how Liana Hadarean '09 would spend her summer.

"In my digital studio class, we were supposed to make a self-portrait called `How others see me'," she said. "In my mind, who you are is not your physical appearance, but it's reflected more in your actions and things you do. Hands are a good symbol for that."

So Hadarean, a computer science and studio arts double major from Bucharest, Romania, created a photo manipulation of hands as her self-portrait, and the seed of an idea began to grow.

What if she used hands, her "powerful symbol of creation, artistic self, and overall human identity," as the subject to explore the constraints and freedom of digital art while simultaneously researching the relationship between the virtual and the real in art?

It would be a large undertaking, though, and Hadarean wondered if she would have time to complete it. Her thoughts turned to summer.

"During the school year you might not jump into a huge project. You have limited time; it could be risky," she said. "But during the summer, you should try it, that's what this is for, to try something new."

Lynette Stephenson, professor of art and art history, helped Hadarean through the proposal process to conduct summer research. "She said, `you want to do this? Sure. Write a draft of the proposal, send it to me,'" said Hadarean, who had not yet taken a class with Stephenson. "That was great. She helped me when she didn't even know me."

Stephenson also served as Hadarean's adviser and mentor on the project. "I showed her sketches of what I wanted to do, and she made me question myself: `What do I want to say with this?'"

Hadarean's project, a set of three paintings of hands displayed on a wall next to a morphing and transforming computer-projected image, will be presented in Little Hall this semester. She'll provide a comment book to gather feedback and reactions to the completed piece, which she says evolved and diverged from her initial proposal.

In Hadarean's mind, that's part of the advantage of doing research during the break. "Working through it over the summer, while you have the time, you do things you'd never imagined you were capable of doing."

The summer research community convened in early August for a poster session where students presented the results of their work. In her second summer on campus, biology major Darcy Gordon '08 (left, talking with chemistry professor Roger Rowlett) commented that she has been "able to work very closely with a faculty member [Rick Geier, chemistry] on a project that I take great interest, responsibility, and pride in." She added that the opportunity instilled in her "the ethos needed in fields of scientific inquiry."

Happiness factor
For the previous two summers, Michelle Wiggins '08 earned spending money for college answering phones and scheduling appointments for the Aria on the Avenue salon and day spa near her hometown of Apalachin, N.Y.

Not this year.

Instead, Wiggins picked up a few extra dollars by conducting research on campus (summer student research positions pay a stipend). She examined the impact of happiness on global migration patterns with economics professor and immigration expert Nicole Simpson. More simply, she conducted research on why people move.

"I was really thankful that Professor Simpson asked me to help out with this project, because it worked perfectly with my background and interests," said Wiggins, a dual economics and psychology major. "Plus, the whole concept is incredibly fascinating."

Wiggins began her work by poring through research on so-called "happiness indicators" and reading articles on the well-being of people from various countries. Next, she put together a literature review, which she discussed with Simpson. The pair then combined the existing happiness and immigration data, and crunched and analyzed the numbers.

While researchers have been studying the well-being of citizens of various countries for some time, no one has undertaken a study that focused on how it affects immigration, said Simpson.

"We hope that by looking at that happiness information, immigration trends, and various pieces of economic data -- wage and productivity differences across countries, to name two -- we'll have a better understanding of why people relocate to different regions," she explained.

The study might help frame immigration policy questions and debate on the federal level, as well as paint a clearer picture of why other nations are losing their best and brightest to places like the United States. "What's wonderful about this research is how interdisciplinary it is -- it melds economics, psychology, and sociology," said Simpson. "Also, the study of happiness is relatively new in the field of economics, so there's a lot of potential for future projects in this area."

Wiggins, for one, will sign on for any related studies that arise. In addition to discovering so much about the subject matter, she said she also gained valuable research skills that will give her a leg up with her coursework and, ultimately, her career. And collaborating with Simpson, she added, has been a great experience. "Now I can put something a little more legitimate than Aria on the Avenue on my resume."

Michael Nitzberg '08, a physics and astronomy/pre-engineering major, is fascinated by granular substances. "Granular properties can be elusive because on the one hand, they act like a fluid, but on the other hand, they are solids," he said. He described his research goal -- "to characterize the interactions that take place when something like a ball is dropped into some type of granular medium." Here, he works on acquiring additional data concerning the changes in the deceleration of an impacting object with respect to time.

Summer opus
Summertime was the perfect time for Xavier Lafont '08 to get serious about writing music.

By not having to devote time to any other courses or classroom projects, Lafont was able to focus solely on his composition involving nine instruments, working one on one with assistant music professor Mark Volker.

"During the school year, I have too much going on, and Professor Volker is too busy as well to really focus on a project like this, so I approached him about doing this over the summer," said Lafont.

Lafont applied for and received a summer research assistantship, which enabled him to complete two of the three movements of his piece on campus before heading home to India, where he continued to write.

A music major who is considering composition as a career, Lafont plays the alto saxophone, sings, and started piano lessons this year with Colgate's Kerry Koen '74.

The orchestral piece he is writing involves flute, oboe, clarinet, trumpet, French horn, trombone, violin, viola, and cello.

The first movement focuses on the woodwinds, particularly the oboe, and strings, and is in a minor key at a moderate tempo. The second movement focuses more on the brass instruments, with repetition and fugal ideas throughout, and is in a minor key at a fast tempo. The third movement, in a major key, begins as a solo for flute with little accompaniment, then adds the rest of the ensemble in the second half.

Lafont said it is the first "serious" work he's attempted. He had taken a composition course with Volker this past spring, but wanted the chance to tackle a larger project.

"It's written with the intention of creating strong ideas and developing them, as well as familiarizing myself with these instruments and pursuing different combinations to achieve various effects," he said.

He also learned how to accept and implement suggestions Volker made. Being able to objectively look at what's been written, review it, and change it is an important part of composition.

"His feedback helped me find some of the general weaknesses I have in composition, so I can work my way out of them," said Lafont.

It's work that Lafont enjoys, and a summer of intensive individual attention from Volker has helped set the right tone as he pursues his music studies.

"I think he has significantly improved his skills as a composer and his understanding of orchestration principles," said Volker.

Top of page
Table of contents
<< Previous: On the road Next: In vino veritas >>