Brunch showcases College’s research-culture vibrancy

June 13, 2017

Speaking to nearly 50 mentored summer research students during a brunch in the International Commons on Thursday, June 8, Karen Talentino, vice president for academic affairs, figuratively gave them something to chew on even before they ate.

“Something you should think about is is how these experiences give great mastery of content knowledge – you will, after eight weeks, know what you’re working on better than anyone else – except maybe your mentor — so pat yourself on the back, because to have the time and support to learn something in such detail is a great opportunity,” she said, explaining that her office will sponsor several such gatherings around meals this summer as in past years so students and mentors can support one another with questions and updates.

The range of this year’s topics reflects the expansion of the thriving Saint Michael’s research culture in recent years, she said – which became evident later when each student briefly summarized what he or she aims to accomplish:

To start that sharing part of the program after the Sodexo-catered buffet, several students from a relatively large group working with Professors Jo Ellis-Monaghan of mathematics and Greta Pangborn of  computer science on DNA self-assembly, graph theory, and knot theory, shared how they had started in the work last year, meaning they are starting this year’s work with a “crash course” on those complex topics already under their belts. Ellis-Monaghan and Pangborn have been overseeing mentored research in this area for many years, resulting in publications with students. Talentino said when the Saint Michael’s summer research really began to grow more than a decade ago, much of it was in such “STEM” subjects – science, technology, engineering and math – but it pleases her to see how many other disciplines now are in the mix, too.

For example, Johanna Lesch, elementary education and psychology major from North Reading, MA, working with mentor Valerie Bang-Jensen of the education faculty, described her study of alternative education programs when parents pull students from schools in order to send kids to academic enrichment programs.

Morgan Beck, sociology major from Lyndon , VT working with mentoring Professor Adrie Kusserow, briefly  told of her ethnographic exploration of parental and student perceptions of education in Vermont among South Sudanese refugees.

Back to science, a group at another table talked about their work on Central American Wandering Spiders and those creatures’ central nervous systems — research overseen by Ruth Fabian-Fine of the biology faculty, who is mentoring a variety of projects relative to these spiders, which are her specialty area. Jessica Tidd of Olympic Valley, CA, said that her faculty mentor, Mark Lubkowitz, was helping her identify key players with proteins that regulate sugar transport through corn plants.

International student Thomas Boullier of Paris, France, told of his economics work with Professors Patrick Walsh and Tara Natarajan comparing the impacts of hosting a sporting mega-event on developed and developing countries. Ryan Kirkpatrick of Hebron, CT, also working with Walsh, is studying public policy predictions based on stock market fluctuations.

David Baird of Higganum, CT, is doing a history project with Professor George Dameron, studying refugees and exiles in pre-modern Europe as a way to understand issues with those populations today.

Several students checked in in about their work in the Water Quality Lab with Declan McCabe of biology (and Janel Roberge), as they go out into Vermont’s rivers and streams and measure total suspended solids. This work, through Vermont EPSCoR funding, has been going on for many years, employs a relatively large number of student-researchers, and is one of the longer-standing summer studies that happens annually at Saint Michael’s.

Another large group reported on their work in chemistry – Saad Alharbi of Saudi Arabia is looking comparatively at nutritional values of date fruits from the U.S. and his native land (mentored by Christina Chant of the chemistry faculty); other projects were too complex-sounding for the average laymen to understand and appreciate by the titles, but students made it accessible in most cases: Samuel Vaal explained how his work with mentor Shane Lamos had to do with copper mine drainage and contaminants; Amanda Spink of Gorham, ME, said her work had possible applications for gas sensors or coating windows; another student spoke of synthesizing a new molecule and predicting possible uses in the pharmaceutical industry, while a classmates said his work might have application with solid-state fuel cells; and Andrew Boucher, working with Professor Bret Finley, is looking at dyes through spectroscopy to understand how interactions between solvents and dyes happen. Talentino joked with another student, who told of working with Professor David Heroux on synthesizing biofuels with algae lipids, that she expected to hear news of a start-up company soon.

Another biology project undertaken by environmental studies major Alyssa Valentyn ’19 of Medford, MA, and biology major Jade Jarvis ’19 of Derby, VT, guided by Professor Declan McCabe, explores a hypothesis on animal abundance in open areas versus wooded areas.

Chris Boutin, a military veteran and psychology major from Milton, described his project at the College’s permaculture site/organic garden that involves researching and building a program structure for horticulture therapy for veterans.

Lauren Stone said she was working to revise a novel that she had been working on under direction from English Professor Liz Inness-Brown. Emily Galow of Mahwah, NJ, also is doing an English project – hers is with emeritus Professor Nick Clary, and titled “Shakespeare, Sexuality and Identity: A Queer Study of Twelfth Night.”

Talentino said her reaction after hearing all their short talks was “one of great enthusiasm and excitement to hear the breadth of topics being studied.” She encouraged all to work on “elevator speeches” so they can summarize their work clearly and concisely when called upon to do so, since they will be asked to present more formally down the road. “This is a full-time job for eight weeks,” she told them, offering any support her office can provide.

Psychology Professor Ari Kirschenbaum of the Undergraduate Research Committee said a key goal was instilling a culture of research and interest more deeply on campus, “so your job doesn’t stop at the end of summer – we want you to encourage classmates to really engage in this culture of exploration, research and questioning … we expect you to be our ambassadors.”

President Jack Neuhauser, a regular attendee at these events over the years, added that it was “always a great deal of fun” to see how the projects and students change over the weeks of summer research.

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