Deep within a biochemistry lab filled with test tubes, petri dishes and centrifuges, wearing goggles and busy manipulating sample genes, Katharine Sworden ’19 had an exciting summer.
Sworden was a scholar in The Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI). Started in 1986, the 10-week stem-based research experience groups approximately 60 students together with over 30 faculty members during the summer to nurture an analytical and experimental thought process amongst its participants.
This student research profram also serves to foster student-faculty collaborations at Vassar. Their research has often led participants to conference presentations and publications in leading scientific journals. Students apply to the program during their early spring semester and, if selected, are given a stipend for their participation. Priority is given to members of groups who are traditionally under-represented in the sciences.
This past summer, Sworden worked with Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of Biochemistry Teresa Garrett on a project entitled “Construction of Escherichia Coli PldB Mutants to Investigate its Catalytic Mechanism.” The research is essentially an attempt to further understand the mechanism of the reaction through which PldB, a protein, catalyzes the formation of PG, a type of phospholipid found in the E. Coli cell membrane. Specifically, Katharine genetically mutated, or changed and deleted base pairs in the DNA of, PldB to see how this would affect the catalyzation of a reaction that forms Acyl PG, a lipid found in the cell membrane of E. Coli. This research aims to lead to a better understanding of the biochemical role of PG in cell division.
For Sworden and many other URSI scholars, research was a new experience: “I had never been in or worked in a lab setting prior to this, so everything was extremely new and exciting.” Nevertheless, Sworden managed to climb the steep learning curve. “I hadn’t had her as a professor before, so I did not really know what I was walking into. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to keep up in the lab or I’d disappoint her. That all went away the more I worked and learned and as she happily answered everything I asked.”
By the end of her URSI experience, Sworden described the true significance of being an URSI scholar: “I realized URSI is more about learning than it is about impressing everyone with these awesome science skills that you somehow managed to acquire without ever having worked in a lab before.”
In addition to URSI, the Diving Into Research (DIR) program reflects Vassar’s commitment to give underclassmen the opportunity to conduct research. This five-week immersive research experience, together with a stipend, is offered exclusively to incoming freshman from low-income, underrepresented and first-generation backgrounds who are interested in the sciences.
“The programming is designed to help the pre-freshman transition to college life. The DIR program helps to create a network of peers, faculty and administrators that the DIR students can reach out to as they continue their time at Vassar,” stated Associate Professor of Physics and Programming Director for DIR David Bradley.
DIR scholars are paired with both a faculty member and a peer mentor. Faculty mentors supervise all the participants’ research, while returning Vassar students serving as peer mentors work to facilitate their transition to Vassar by helping the scholar get acquainted with various campus services and the community as a whole.
“I was really hoping I could make someone’s transition a little easier,” remarked Miranda Hulsey-Vincent ’19, who served as a peer mentor for the past summer’s DIR scholars. “I felt like the experience was very enriching! The incoming freshman had a great energy and really imparted it on me. I was reminded of how excited I was when I was a freshman, which really made me appreciate what I have at Vassar!”
During the DIR program, scholars are also invited to meet other Vassar science students and participate in skills workshops and societal activities.
For most scholars, the DIR program is their first research experience. This was no exception for Robert Elizardo ’20, who conducted acoustics research along with Associate Professor of Physics and Chair of Physics and Astronomy Brian Daly. The research involved creating 3D models on SketchUp, a type of modeling software, and running the acoustic program Odeon to study and graph the extent to which sounds are of the same level when measured from different directions. He then studied sound diffusers in a reverberation room and graphed the rate of decay on MatLab.
Beyond the world of STEM, Vassar is also one of the few institutions to offer research positions for students in social sciences and the humanities. Established in 1988, the Ford Scholars program encourage mentoring relationships between students and faculty and a high level of student participation. This past summer, the program accommodated 23 projects that focused on subjects including Chinese, education, political science, economics, psychology and sociology.
Many research projects involve course preparation and teaching-related research. One such project involved forming a syllabus for a course that will be offered in the spring semester of 2017 entitled “The Narratives of Japan: Fiction and Film.” Reina Miyake ’18, a Japanese correlate, worked on this project with the Chair of the Chinese and Japanese Department Peipei Qiu. The project involved examining Japanese narratives in literature and cinema. Miyake researched, evaluated and collected relevant materials and works of scholarship on Japanese film and literature including “Rashomon,” “Ugetsu,” “Monogatari,” “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter,” “The Makioka Sisters” and “Fires on the Plain.” After finalizing the syllabus, she digitized the readings and ripped the DVDs of required films into video files.
As she assisted Qiu in creating the syllabus, she conducted her own research on films by Hayao Miyazaki, including “Spirited Away,” to create a visual presentation called “Environmentalism in Miyazaki’s Animation,” which is to be shown in the upcoming spring class.
For Miyake, the motivation behind her first research experience was as educational as it was personal. As a Japanese-American, she felt that the Japanese literature and culture she studied formed a integral part of her childhood. She also thought it was interesting to study non-contemporary Japanese culture because she previously had not been exposed to as much older Japanese films and culture.
Despite its focus on the humanities and social sciences, participants in the Ford Scholar program may have significant relationships and experiences with STEM disciplines as well. “Music and math are closely related,” says Alison Breeze ’19.
For her project titled “Choral Music for Treble Singers: Repertoire, Curriculum, Conducting,” Breece was responsible for selecting music that the Cappella Festiva Treble Choir would sing for their Summer Choral Festival, a two-week choral festival for treble voices ages 8-17.
The final two weeks of her project were spent teaching the music that she selected to a choir of 27 girls from around Hudson Valley. Unique aspects of Breece’s project included playing piano and working closely with her mentor, Associate Professor of Music and Director of Choral Activities Christine Howlett. Breece plans to use the knowledge gained from her experience to help pick a repertoire for the Vassar College Women’s Chorus in the future.
As Breece’s experiences reflect, it could be helpful and beneficial for students to be exposed to education and research in the humanities, even if they are STEM majors.
As Associate Professor of History and Director of Africana Studies Quincy Mills emphasizes, “STEM majors should certainly look to study and conduct research in the humanities and social sciences. This would certainly enhance their liberal arts education. By extension, I imagine STEM majors would gain a more holistic perspective on society by studying and conducting research in the social sciences and humanities.”