URSI symposium celebrates student summer research

Leila Raines/The Miscellany News.

Conversations about moth-catching spiders, webcam eye-tracking software and more filled the buzz of the College Center last Wednesday, Sept. 28. Students, faculty and numerous other members of the Vassar community weaved through the second floor, milling around the various posters scattered throughout the space. This marked the 37th annual symposium highlighting the student work that resulted from this year’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI).

This year, more than 100 students and faculty participated in URSI, working together to explore and engage in hands-on research in various fields of study, such as biology, math, anthropology and more. All of their work came to fruition in this symposium that allowed students to present posters detailing their research and findings from their endeavors. 

The event started off with introductions from Benjamin Lotto, the Director of URSI and Professor of Mathematics and Statistics.

“It was an honor and a privilege to oversee URSI, which has been part of Vassar’s lifeblood since 1986,” Lotto commented in an email correspondence. “Watching over 80 URSI student-fellows working full-time, side-by-side with their faculty mentors on cutting edge research in a summer community of researchers is truly impressive.”

The second portion of the event featured poster sessions that spotlighted the individual projects that the students engaged in throughout the summer. Attendees could loop around the second floor of the College Center and see the research for themselves. The space brimmed with conversation as students talked about the work they did to passersby.

Among the students who participated in URSI this year, Emma Sagerer ’23 cherished the time she spent on campus over the summer. “I felt like the community vibes were really strong and everybody was excited to be doing the work they were doing,” she expressed. “I made some amazing friends over the summer because we were in such close proximity and on pretty much the same schedules. Plus, the work was really fun, and I was doing what I hope to be doing as a career in the near future.”

Leila Raines/The Miscellany News.

Sagerer worked alongside two other students and Professor of Chemistry Joseph Tanski in synthesizing chiral amines, a substance found in many pharmaceuticals. “I am super proud of all of the results my team was able to get. We synthesized a total of 12 molecules, and were able to crystallize 5 of them, meaning we could be able to publish those 5 molecules in databases,” Sagerer continued: “I felt like we were really working towards something important and useful in a broader sense than just our lab in the Bridge.

Kali vom Eigen ’23 worked with the Vassar Grand Challenges program to look at inclusivity in the STEM curricula. Along with eight other students, vom Eigen looked at how barriers (such as hidden curriculum) could hinder the education of disadvantaged students. As vom Eigen summarized, “Hidden curriculum is a term that describes untaught norms, expectations and skills that are learned through experiences in higher education, and [are] typically inaccessible to low-income, first-gen, and/or underrepresented minority students. We were trying to learn how hidden curriculum impacts students at Vassar, and how to most effectively reduce the struggles experienced by disadvantaged students.”

Vom Eigen hopes that the legacy of their summer work continues to shape the future of the Vassar community as a whole. “I’m hoping our research will actually go places at Vassar, and we’ll see inclusive programs and practices implemented sometime in the near future. The Transitions research team is also continuing our work and looking into GPA disparities between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students, so I’m really excited to see where that takes them!”

Abby DiNardo ’25, who studied the statistical distribution of a family of knots with other members of the Department of Mathematics, expressed similar sentiments on the importance of programs like URSI: “It’s honestly huge that we have a summer research program dedicated to exposing students to research. That’s part of the reason I came to Vassar. I knew there would be opportunities like URSI that you just can’t find at bigger schools especially ones with graduate students.”

“Having the opportunity to work full-time in the lab or field for a summer on cutting edge research is an opportunity that is simply not available at a large university,” Lotto agreed.

With the commencement of fall—the changing of leaves and the dropping of temperatures—the URSI symposium provided a strong conclusion to an eventful, productive summer.


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