Symposium honors scientific collaboration

The annual URSI symposium provides an opportunity for students to present their scientific research, which they conducted with a professor over the summer. and celebrates collaboration across disciplines. Photo By: Vassar College
The annual URSI symposium provides an opportunity for students to present their scientific research, which they conducted with a professor over the summer. and celebrates collaboration across disciplines. Photo By: Vassar College
The annual URSI symposium provides an opportunity for students to present their scientific research,
which they conducted with a professor over the summer. and celebrates collaboration across disciplines. Photo By: Vassar College

In an annual symposium showcasing original research conducted by some of the Vassar student body, the spirit of scientific collaboration was celebrated this past Wednesday in the Villard room. This four-hour program was the culmination of the Undergraduate Summer Research (URSI) program. Working on topics ranging from senior citizens to rocks to E. coli, over 60 Vassar students and 30 faculty presented their findings last week. In opening remarks, Steve Rock, Acting Dean of the Faculty, explained this process. “URSI is an extraordinary program” he said. “The students who participate learn to formulate a research question, review the relevant scientific literature, develop hypotheses, design experiments, gather and analyze data, and present their findings. The kinds of skills that they develop and practice will make them effective leaders and citizens no matter what future path they may choose.”

The theme of the afternoon seemed to be the virtue of collaboration. Associate Professor of Computer Science Marc Smith remarked, “Science is a social, and a collaborative, exercise, and URSI wouldn’t be possible without many dimensions of collaboration. One dimension of collaboration is among people at different stages of their scientific career.”

Scientific careers in their early stages were highly represented through presentation of student research both orally and visually. As for the first method, five students presented their work to the crowd during the main program.

One student, Anuoluwapo Sopeyin ’15, discussed the efficiency levels she obtained in purifying PldB, a lysophospholipase found in E. coli. She hopes that, along with her mentor Teresa Garrett, Associate Professor of Chemistry, she can use this process that she has developed to further study lysophospholipase. Of her time spent this summer, Sopeyin found the process incredibly valuable. “Working on a long project is different than regular class labs in that although you have to work for long hours straight, you get to really own the research. It’s a continuous process of trial-error that leaves you anticipating results” she said. She admits that she was a bit nervous to present in front of so many people, but she found that it wasn’t as bad as she thought that it was going to be.

“At first, the thought of presenting to such a varied audience—professors and students—was a bit nerve-racking. I wanted to convey everything I learned in the best way, so that everyone understood” she said.

Ramy Abbady ’16, another student who spoke about his work, alongside fellow student Brian Deer ’15, studied Planaria using light diffraction patterns this summer. Discussing his work, he described yet another aspect to the collaboration process: the professor/student mentorship. “I think getting the chance to do work collaboratively with an expert was incredibly rewarding. It was mind-blowing to be able to learn so much from Professor Magne,” said Abbady of his advisor Assistant Professor of Physics Jenny Magnes. This relationship allowed him to gain a better idea of how research works.

“The scientific process is actually quite challenging, because most of the setbacks come unexpectedly and you have to react quickly to them,” said Abbady. As an example he explained that at one point in the summer the worms became sick and the team was unable to collect data.

Following the student presentations was a keynote address from Professor Christos Papadimitriou, C. Lester Hogan Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley. Speaking of his own work, he discussed evolution and how he can describe different processes using computational methods. Starting off very general, describing some of the leaders in the genetics and evolution field, and then relating that to his own work, he provided an example to the students in attendance on how one might present their own findings to a general audience.

While the main focus of the symposium was on the students and their work, the program also took time to honor the late Winifred Asprey ’38, an alumna and former professor. Asprey, founder of Vassar Computer Science department and responsible for the acquisition of Vassar’s first computer in 1967, wanted to impact Vassar students even after she was gone. Through an endowment made possible by Asprey, programs through the Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science, such as Science at Vassar Farm, Diving into Research, and, of course, URSI, will continue to be funded for years to come.

In honor of her support, the Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science was rededicated on Wednesday, the Winifred Asprey Center for Collaborative Approaches to Science. Of this Smith said, “Collaboration also exists across disciplines, and CCAS has encouraged, enabled, and extended Vassar’s commitment to this type of collaboration since we received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant back in 2008. What the HHMI grant helped us start, the bequest from Winifred Asprey will help us continue in perpetuity.”

The symposium ended with a poster session for the public and a dinner for those involved in URSI. Over 50 posters that were created by the involved students were displayed and many of students were present to discuss their findings. In this way they worked to keep the spirit of collaboration alive, taking what they learned and sharing it within a community of scientists, researchers, professors and students.

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