Summer research culminates in annual URSI symposium

David Rishell, lecturer of Physics, and URSI student, Adam Warner’ 17, stayed on campus throughout the summer working together to establish a physics curriculum that is both interactive and fun. Photo By: Vassar College Admissions
David Rishell, lecturer of Physics, and URSI student, Adam Warner’ 17, stayed on campus throughout the summer working together to establish a physics curriculum that is both interactive and fun. Photo By: Vassar College Admissions
David Rishell, lecturer of Physics, and URSI student, Adam Warner’ 17, stayed on campus throughout the summer working together to establish a physics curriculum that is both interactive and fun. Photo By: Vassar College Admissions

For almost 30 years, Vassar has been giving students in the sciences an incredible summer job opportunity: the Undergraduate Research Summer Institute. Known as URSI, the program was founded in 1986 and is among the nation’s oldest undergraduate research programs. Jodi Schwarz, one of the URSI Directors, spoke about the program: “The opportunity for undergraduates to work one-on-one with a faculty member for a full summer allows students to see what life as a research scientist is like, both in the lab and outside. They also learn how to engage in a scientific community through URSI’s social events, such as barbecues, lunch workshops and lunch science presentations, all of which bring together the full URSI community to hear about each other’s work and interests.”

A program that consists of more than just science, URSI this summer consisted of 33 faculty and 50 Vassar students, two students from other colleges, and five new Vassar freshmen from the Diving Into Research Program. These students and faculty spanned nine departments. Over a 10 week span, students lived on campus and assisted professors working on a single project both in labs and in the field.

In addition, students attended supplementary events to support the development of students as scientists and members of a research community. Schwarz indicated that these included workshops on science communication, resume development, safety, data analysis methods, poster design and fun events such as a barbecues and lunch meetings. She also said that the combination of the events and the research created an excellent atmosphere for students over the summer. Grants and endowments from Vassar allowed students to make URSI a viable summer job.

As for the projects themselves, Schwarz was pleased: “The summer was incredibly productive and fun. Students engaged in research with faculty across all the science departments. Their work will culminate in 50 posters and talks presented at the URSI Symposium. Some of the projects will go on to be presented at national science conferences and be published in peer-reviewed journals.”

The success of the projects is clear in Physics Professor Cindy Schwarz’s URSI project. Over the course of ten weeks, Professor Schwarz created a workbook of physics simulations for middle school students. And, in a “very Vassar” twist, her two URSI students and one DIR student were joined by two artists from the CAAD (Creative Arts Across the Disciplines) program, funded by TATLOCK through the Dean of the Faculty, Jonathan Chenette. The CAAD students provided the artwork for the updated simulations, working closely with the URSI students to create the most effective program possible. As Schwarz said, “Being what I consider myself to be, an outside physicist having ventured into everything from writing children’s books to having my student write short stories with subatomic particles as characters, to having an alum son who majored in Physics and Studio Art, [the collaboration] seems very natural to me. I expected things to go well, but was extremely impressed by the way the art students and physics students worked together. Without both perspectives, this project would not have become as amazing as it did.” This project was a major success, and now the simulations created have been sent out for review to teachers, including a professor from Stanford working in education outreach for middle schools who has reportedly found them incredible. The simulations and the project will be presented at another aspect of the URSI program: the URSI Symposium.

At the annual URSI symposium, students give presentations about their summer research projects and an invited distinguished speaker provides a keynote address. The 2014 URSI symposium will be held on Wednesday, October 1, from 3:00-6:45pm in the Villard Room of Main Building. It will begin with oral presentations by four of this summer’s student researchers. After the student presentations, New York Times correspondent Amy Harmon will give the keynote address, “Amy’s Adventures in GMO-land: A New York Times Reporter Explores the Rift Between Public Perception and Scientific Consensus in the Topsy-Turvy Debate over Biotechnology in Agriculture.” Harmon is a national correspondent for the Times, interested in the ways science and technology shape life. An article she wrote about a twenty-something facing the eventual onset of Huntington’s disease, “Facing Life with a Lethal Gene,” was included in the Best American Science Writing 2008 and in 2010 was included in an anthology of the best of the best American science writing. Harmon’s series about human testing of a new type of a cancer drug, “Target Cancer,” received the annual journalism award from the National Academies of Science. Harmon’s address will be followed by a session in which URSI students will answer questions about posters created on their summer projects.

The Symposium is just one way in which Vassar’s URSI program is providing students with incredible opportunities to further their future careers. “Whether or not a student goes on to become a research scientist, their URSI experience will enrich their understanding of science and the role that scientific research plays in society. The experience of knowing firsthand how science is done makes students become better critical thinkers and more engaged citizens,” said Schwarz.

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