Students present summer research at URSI symposium

A student presents a poster on their summer research at the URSI Symposium. Forty-five students made posters, and several presented before the whole audience./ Courtesy of Elizabeth Bradley

On Wednesday, Sept. 27, Vassar students presented their faculty-advised research projects at the 2017 Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI) Symposium, the 22nd annual of its kind. It featured undergraduate research in fields such as anthropology, computer science and mathematics, as well as lab sciences like chemistry and biology.

On Wednesday, students, parents and faculty crowded the Villard Room for the afternoon’s program to see the 45 projects on display. Dean of the Faculty Jon Chenette and Director of URSI David T. Carreon Bradley gave opening remarks. Next were three oral presentations from student researchers.

URSI student-researchers worked for 10 weeks over the summer on their respective projects. Each individual or group of researchers teamed up with a member of Vassar faculty who oversaw their work, either in a science lab, in their office or in the field. Many of the student-researchers worked tirelessly, spending eight hours a day in the lab or field fine-tuning their hypotheses, expanding their theories or authoring academic papers.

A few students presented their research to the entire audience. Kaya Deuser ’20 went first. Titled “Navigation Strategies of Autonomous Agents: How to Choose Your New Vacuum Cleaner,” Deuser’s research tackled issues of automation. In her presentation, she focused on the issues of automated vacuum cleaners, examining two distinct strategies of automation. Deuser worked closely with Professor of Computer Science Pavel Naumov on her research.

Deuser and Naumov’s project was purely theoretical; unlike most URSI researchers, Deuser spent no time in the lab. “Rather than doing a standard nine-to-five shift, we spent about four hours a day just talking about the theory one-on-one,” she said. “You can’t think about this stuff much longer than that.” Deuser added that staying focused was one of her biggest challenges.

Deuser, however, had passion on her side. “I had no idea I had this interest before starting my research,” she said. “I wasn’t even a computer science major.” Deuser elaborated on how she fell into her project, becoming Professor Naumov’s research assistant her first year at Vassar. Researching with Naumov helped her discover what turned out to be an incredible passion. “It feels so good to be working to solve a big problem … It makes me feel good about the way I think and work.”

Deuser and Naumov have since authored two papers together. She continues her research nine hours a week with Professor Naumov this semester and hopes to apply for summer research again next year. “URSI’s a great experience—you get to work on something you’re passionate about.”

Kendal Foster ’18, Deanna Havey ’18 and Kamakshi Kanojia ’19 collaborated with Professor Benjamin Morin on their research project, “Investigation of the Transmission of Cholera through Water Networks.” Applying mathematical modeling to epidemiology, this project modeled the spread of cholera through water supplies in Kanojia’s native Nepal.

Foster, Havey and Kanojia gave the second of the symposium’s formal presentations Wednesday.

Havey, a biology major, was new to mathematical modelling when the project began. She was fortunate enough, however, to meet a professor whose passions intersected with her own. Professor Morin is a mathematician whose research focuses on modeling biological ecosystems.

A mathematical framework was perfect for what the team wanted to study. Havey explained that they were interested in modeling the spread of cholera after Konjia told them about the devastating effects of cholera in her own country, Nepal, where outbreaks occur annually during monsoon season.

“We examined the existing models and saw that there was a lot missing,” Havey said. Professor Morin taught them how to use the Susceptible, Infected and Recovered (SIR) modeling he specializes in. From there, they expanded the existing models, refining them into a series of equations, which helped them further understand the factors that help spread the disease.

In addition to the research skills she learned through URSI, Havey spoke about the professional skills she garnered through her research as well. She said that URSI, over the last few years, has worked to build workshops into the program designed to teach student researchers how to better write and present their work. Havey, who also participated in URSI last summer, said she would definitely do it again if she could. “It’s a great place to build professional skills and do meaningful research,” she reflected.

The third formal presentation of the evening was given by Cali Corbett ’18, Samarah Cook ’18, Eric Lee ’18 and Kenneth Lee ’18. Their presentation was called “Comparative Analysis of Steroid Mediated Neuroprotection,” and they undertook their research with the supervision of Assistant Professor of Biology Kelli Duncan and Professor of Psychology Kevin Holloway. The group’s research examined the effectiveness of steroids, such as estrogen, in mitigating brain cell death in the period following a penetrative brain injury.

Following the formal research presentations, Michigan State University professor Robert T. Pennock gave his keynote address: “Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science.” Pennock reflected on five V’s—Vocation, Virtue, Veracity, Verification and Values—as essential to moral science. Pennock remarked that conversations regarding science have consciously shifted to take account of the essential process, rather than just the results of science. He acknowledged, however, that more should be done. “There’s one other piece,” Pennock said Wednesday. “We must consider not just product, or process, but the values [of science].”

These values, Pennock argued, are often missing from STEM education. He emphasized the importance of teaching the more virtuous or philosophical aspects of science.

Following Pennock’s address, attendees were given the opportunity to learn about the rest of the URSI projects through informal presentations and corresponding posters, which were set up throughout the second floor of the College Center.

After the symposium, faculty, family and guests gathered in the Aula for dinner to celebrate the rigorous research and incredible accomplishment of Vassar’s student researchers.

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