Surprise results keep life interesting for student summer researchers

At luncheon with mentors to share outcomes and challenges, presenters from varied disciplines describe ups and downs of their work in recent months

July 29, 2022
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

Kevin Russell, right, and Seamus Stein rose together to present a thorough explanation of their combined/related work studying statistical approaches to causal inference. (photo Patrick Bohan)

 View photo gallery from research luncheon.

“I am impressed with the level of the research they are doing and the questions they are asking,” said Saint Michael‘s College’s new Dean of Faculty Gretchen Galbraith after hearing students from sciences and humanities share outcomes and roadblocks encountered in nearly two months of mentored deep research dives for summer 2022. 

Such explorations can be full of surprises, both challenging and rewarding, students disclosed as they stood and reported out, many in extended esoteric detail, for their faculty mentors and peers after first enjoying a fine Sodexo luncheon together, midday Tuesday in the Dion Family Student Center Roy Room. 

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Swapnil Jhajharia at Tuesday’s luncheon. (Photo Pat Bohan)

Some telling examples: Swapnil Jhajharia, a psychology & statistics major studying “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on College students with marginalized identities and experiences of prejudice and discrimination” (mentor Sarah Nosek of psychology) said he felt challenged by “taking all those rich [subjective human] responses and turning them into ones or zeros with the coding we used, but that’s how stats work sometimes.”  

Brook Hodgeman, a rising senior physics major working with faculty mentor Alain Brizard, reported achieving most of what he set to do this summer, which felt rewarding. Brizard, one of the world’s leading experts on nuclear fusion, gave context and clarity afterward of their work and how Brook fit in: “The confinement of charged particles by strong magnetic fields is a crucial component of many nuclear fusion experiments around the world,” said Brizard. “The numerical analysis of charged-particle orbits in complex magnetic fields based on Newtonian physics is too slow, even for the most powerful computers.

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Brook Hodgeman presents (photo Mark Tarnacki)

Instead, mathematical models known as guiding-center models are used in most computer codes in order to speed up the analysis of these particle orbits. The development of these guiding-center models has been part of my research for the past 30 years and I wrote a highly cited review paper on the subject in 2009. Since then, I have derived improved guiding-center models, and Brook and I are working on studying how faithful these models are compared to the exact Newtonian orbits.” Hodgeman said one relatively small challenge was how long it took to run some “longer time-scale calculations” that might “take hours for the code to work for one particle.” He and Brizard will continue the work into the academic year.

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Gretchen Galbraith, the new Dean of Faculty (foreground left), listens intently to impressive presentations. (photo Mark Tarnacki)

A perennial fixture at these research luncheons is a group from the lab of Ruth-Fabian Fine and Adam Weaver (biology/neuroscience), typically probing hypotheses on neurodegeneration among spiders, and often beyond that as this year, flatworms and snails. Exposing flatworms to alcohol impedes their regeneration, one woman in the group said. “One worm ended up growing one head on each side of its body – it was weird,” she said. They, too, will keep at it this fall in senior honors biology class. The presenting students were Anna Aiken, Shaun Clem, Abigail Dalpe, Taylor Galgay and Colin Radican. Said Vice President Jeffrey Trumbower, master of ceremonies, “it’s always a treat to learn about the spiders.”  The large photo at top behind the headline shows the group.

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Rosemary Marr, left, and Faith Morgan describe their poetry project. (photo by Patrick Bohan)

Faith Morgan and Rosemary Marr, business administration and English majors respectively working with Greg Delanty, an eminent established Irish poet on the English faculty, told of their project titled “Paired Poetry Collection.” Morgan described how they have been meeting this summer on Thursdays with Delanty, bringing poems they have written and discussing what they  meant while analyzing poetry with him, both their own and that of known poets of different eras and styles.  They learned what makes a good poem and about styles of poetry, and their mentor “inspired us to write frequently,” Morgan said. They also started formatting a possible book to be the result of their summer work, and they hope to keep working into the fall. 

Marr said some poets they studied are Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Louise Gluck, and others who might be slightly less known. She said one major challenge was the writing axiom to “kill your darlings” — that is, whatever you really care about, “it’s probably the worst thing you have ever written” and Delanty is a fearless truth-teller on such matters, so it can be “heartbreaking,” but the students also realize it is important to be honest.  

Michael Lynch told of working with mentor Rebecca Gurney of Fine Arts on a branding design for environmental studies Professor Clay Williams, who has developed a water sensor to use along Lake Champlain beaches primarily in detecting algae blooms. Lynch had to make adjustments on how long he spent on each part of his project – four weeks for a logo, which was longer than expected, but then the website he created went smoothly “so it kind of evened out” he said. His take-away: “Timeline are really just guidelines,” Lynch said, “so just take your time or else you might get poor products that you may not be proud of.” 

Clay Williams speaks. (photo by Mark Tarnacki)

Clay Williams then read results from his student, environmental studies major Grace Saunders, who could not attend, from her study of ambient nitrogen and phosphorous nutrient levels in Lake Champlain’s Burlington Waterfront Area and their effect on the algae blooms. He said a big setback, or at least, “good for swimmers but bad for researchers,” was that “for five straight weeks we got zero for the main number,” but then a massive algae bloom showed up toward the end of their study’s timeframe, precipitating one of the highest measures ever recorded on Champlain. They will keep going with the project in the coming months. Saunders is mapping her results, he said. 

Biology researchers Alva Albis and Olivia Stebbins, working with faculty biologist Lindsey Avery as mentor, hope after continuing through the fall with their research involving proteins, the immune system and mutations that they can present at the American Society for Cell Biology annual professional meeting in Washington, DC, next spring, they said.

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A student presenter gestures to make a point. (photo by Patrick Bohan)

Medison Tetrault, a prepharmacy and biology major, described her look into chemistry education programs at colleges, particular peer institutions to Saint Michael’s in the region. “What we expect to see is a large diversity” in the requirements and equipment among chemistry departments, “so our first goal in fall is to develop a grading system to compare peer institutions and Saint Michael’s,” she said. 

Parker Lambery has been working with mathematics Professor Christopher Desjardins on a data science project (his major) involving writing in java script. Digitalization tools, coding into certain scripts, graphing, and website design work all have entered in for him this summer. He spoke in advanced programmer language — not always easy to follow for the uninitiated in the audience, though it gave a good sense of his busy summer and demonstrated that he seemed deeply invested in the work and results. He talked about graphing data, including three-dimensionally, which interested him, and of web page applications that are of use to him and other data experts.  

Mackenzie Costello ‘23, a health science major, is working with both Melissa Vanderkaay Tomasulo (psychology/neuroscience) and Dagan Loisel (biology). Her funding was not through the Vice President of Academic Affairs office (as with a majority of projects), and instead has been via a NASA-VT space grant consortium — a Saint Michael’s internal summer mentored grant. The project is a continuation of the NASA project the professors have been working on for some time. 

Rebekah Underwood, a sociology and psychology major, and Ben Soulard (sociology) are teaming up under the guidance of Professor Candas Pinar (sociology/anthropology) in studying “masculinities and decision-making among cancer patients.” The idea was to examine how certain sociodemographic factors affected cancer treatment decisions, particularly comparing married or unmarried domestic partnerships and the relative effects on treatments/health outcomes.

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Rebekah Underwood and Ben Soulard describe their study on cancer patients and demographics/survival rate. (photo Patrick Bohan)

Right off the bat, a challenge was that the federal data source they hoped to use was not accessible from Saint Michael’s, but they found another database that had similar and usable results. They found it positive, they said, to discover “that just having a relationship you’re living in would boost cancer survival rates,” given that marriage rates are declining. However, a surprise finding from their data was that females in unmarried domestic partnerships had the highest survival rates among women, even higher than married women, while that was not true for men. They speculated on causes such as social support, holding parners accountable to health behaviors, and even insurance differences from being married. 

Kevin Russell and Seamus Stein (photo top right in story) rose together to present a thorough explanation of their combined/related work studying statistical approaches to causal inference, under mentor Michael Larsen, professor & chair of mathematics & statistics, with funding from Vermont’s NASA Space Research Grant. Stein said his particular focus was on the philosophical conception of causation, while Russell was more heavily weighted toward the statistical side of the research. Studies they used for data included a group of students from Portugal that related being in a relationship to test scores, and another study of the causal link between smoking and lung cancer. The pair is moving forward, finishing analysis and papers, and hopes to present at the College’s spring Academic Symposium and possibly even at an outside mathematics conference.  

Another study that yielded surprising results to the student researcher was Andre’ Kaufmann’s study about “The Effect of Police Budget size on Policing Outcomes” The Vermont native and Criminology major said she used data from Vermont police agencies and did not find any relation between budgets and crime statistics — “You imagine they’d be able to do more with more money and better resources, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case,” she said, though she is still running statistical analysis.

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Andrea Kaufmann tells of surprising results in a Vermont police budgets study. (Photo Patrick Bohan)

She had hoped to present data to towns but given her results does not believe too many will be interested in “being handed a memo saying it doesn’t matter.” Her biggest roadblock, she said, was to get data from small towns through town clerks or websites since many do not have data easily available, even Rutland. Still, she thinks she might write something up for consideration by an outlet like Seven Days newspaper in Burlington that might find he results interesting.

Mia Cooper and Virginia (“Gigi”) Kelsey, ‘23 described their research work with Ari Kirshenbaum (psychology) on e-cigarettes and nicotine effects, based on participants coming to the lab to play online games. Cooper said most challenging was trying to get people to respond to her follow up for a study they initially did in 2018. Learning Excel for the study took some time for her too though he mentor was a big help. One shocking result, Kelsey said, was that the levels of anxiety and depression they measured seemed higher before the pandemic versus post-pandemic. In discussions with Kirshenbaum, they felt that it might relate to spending more time with families for helpful support in the pandemic. The study drove home to them how mental health awareness is on the rise and important for everyone. They hope to submit results to journalists.

VPAA Jeffrey Trumbower in green, master of ceremonies, hears student presentations.

Greg Hurter said his work with Trish Siplon (political science) on vaccine hesitancy in Vermont started when he took Siplon’s class for the campus CAN (Covid Awareness Network) class last year. He sent surveys to six colleges and got 2,000-plus responses, but in summer it was hard to contact professors and health officials to follow up since many were out of office. His results showed some predictable correlations between political views and vaccine hesitancy.  

Elizabeth Crotty described her study of an interpretive trail encouraging control of invasive species and wise land use to improve water quality in the Champlain drainage (Declan McCabe adviser). 

After nearly two hours of presentations, VPAA Trumbower said “it was great to hear about the different research and interesting results, particularly things that were unexpected and exciting to hear.”

wide shot

A wide shot of the luncheon. (photo by Patrick Bohan)

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