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Rats, Reefs and Religion: Faculty and Students Enjoy Summer Research

Attending a Brown Bag Lunch at Washington and Lee’s Howe Hall in the summer is akin to earning a mini college degree. During these sessions, held weekly in June and July, Washington and Lee undergraduates share highlights from their summer research projects. The quick-moving presentations zip between disciplines, offering an up-to-the-minute glimpse into experiments and studies taking place across campus.

About 100 undergraduates participated in summer research projects at W&L, which does not hold classes in the summer. According to the provost’s office, 61 of these students received funding through the Robert E. Lee Summer Scholars Program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2010. Students were also funded by the the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation, the Levy Endowment for Neuroscience, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant and several other sources. Professors and students across the disciplines have found this summer work to be educationally and professionally rewarding.

• Watch a slideshow of summer research project.

Sarah Blythe, an HHMI post-doctoral fellow and biology professor, interviewed students for three summer positions. “I told them about the research, and that we’d be picking wet rats out of a pool. They all seemed to agree that was a perfectly fine thing to do,” said Blythe, who is examining how a high-fat diet affects learning and memory, with a focus on gender differences. Student assistance was essential, said Blythe, because the experiments were both time and labor intensive.

For the project, Rick Sykes ’13, David Phillips ’13 and Nicole Gunawansa ’14 monitored how rats performed in a water maze and in a novel-object memory test. They then harvested the animal’s brains.

“It was actually really great because it was very hands-on,” said Gunawansa. “That’s what I was looking for, because I’m intending pre-med, and so I really wanted the opportunity to see if I was willing to handle this stuff. It was a little difficult at first, because I never really had any experience cutting into a live thing before, but it was a very interesting and exciting process.”

Anthropology instructor Sean Devlin hired students for two summer projects. Erika Vaughn ’12 traced the origins of Native American artifacts that were donated to the University many years ago. Victoria Cervantes ’14, Erin Schwartz ’12 and Nicole Rose ’11 cataloged tenant-farmer artifacts uncovered in Charlottesville. They loaded this data into the Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (DAACS), a database holding information about slave-related artifacts discovered at sites across the South and the Caribbean.

The DAACS cataloging wasn’t as thrilling as digging up artifacts during Spring Term, Cervantes admitted, but she was glad to have had the experience. “It’s a good way to introduce you to the field and find out if it’s really what you want to do afterwards, because you can’t always find that out in the classroom, or even on a spring dig, because that shows you the fun, Indiana Jones-y side of it. Then you get and it’s the other part of it,” she said.

For Devlin, a member of W&L’s Class of 2004, a rewarding aspect of summer research has been watching students learn. “Nicole is looking through a book right now about sewing implements and thimbles and needles,” he said. “It’s about those objects, but it’s also about what do these objects mean for the people using them. You can really see the students move from the small, specific stuff back to the larger, broader issues of interpreting the past.”

‘Help Them See the Big Picture’

Jonathan Eastwood, an associate professor of sociology, agrees. Eastwood, who is studying how a country’s emerging nationalism affects the balance of power between church and state, hired Manuel Garcia ’14 and Matthew Ziemer ’14. “I really work to try to help them see the big picture and not just what they’re doing in terms of data collection on a day-to-day basis, but how it fits in relation to the broader research project I’m conducting, also the big questions in the field,” said Eastwood. “It’s good for the research, but especially, as a teacher, it’s just really wonderful to work with bright undergraduate students in this way.”

For the project, Garcia collected data from encyclopedias of nationalism and studied the constitutions of relevant South American countries. The work improved his research skills. “Trying to be efficient, trying to get as much information but at the same time being meticulous about it, making sure you don’t leave any important information out, I think that it’s demanding,” said Garcia. “I definitely think that will help me once I start the school year.”

In the Psychology Department, associate professor Wythe Whiting and his team examined whether a person’s ability to detect facial expressions declines with age. Similar research has focused on age-related declines in memory and attention, said Whiting, but face processing is unique because it is a hard-wired, nearly automatic skill that uses a different type of cognitive processing.

For the study, test subjects looked at photographs of faces on a computer screen and determined the correct emotions. Student assistance was vital. “We may be getting 70 people through here. It takes at least an hour per person, so the students are necessary components, to collect the data,” said Whiting. “But it also gives them great experience because they pretty much get to do the project from start to finish.”

By running the project all the way through, the students-Roger Strong ’12, Keaton Fletcher ’13 and Erin Kennedy ’14-learned through trial and error how to conduct an experiment. “A big part of it is how much attention to detail that’s necessary,” said Strong. “Because if you change one little thing about the program or images and later on, if you don’t realize you messed it up, you have to go back and fix everything.”

From Belize to Lexington

Even projects in exotic locales can be labor intensive. Just ask Lisa Greer, associate professor of geology, who traveled to Belize with Matt Benson ’12 and Will Sullivan ’14 to study the health of an endangered coral species called Acropora cerviconis. Significant living swaths of the coral are known to exist in two places, the Dominican Republic and Honduras. Greer learned about the Belize site from Al Curran, a 1962 W&L graduate and Smith College geology professor who directed a research program in which Greer participated during her undergraduate days at Colorado College.

In Belize, Sullivan photographed the reef while Benson captured its topography with a video camera. In Lexington, the team determined the health of the reef after calculating the percentage of live coral visible in meter-square segments. To do this, they have been digitizing Sullivan’s photographs. It’s a time-consuming task, and it can take up to four hours just to digitize just one square meter of coral.

“Will was absolutely invaluable in trying to figure out the method for how to digitize these,” said Greer. “He has worked with three or four different programs, really to try and key in on a method for doing this.” Benson, after a four-week, grant-sponsored trip to St John, will be using the Belize research as part of a comparative study.

Students and professors across the board enjoyed not only collaborating but also getting to know each other on a less formal basis. Perhaps most surprising, at least for the students, was that they would even have the opportunity to work with professors in the first place. “A big thing to stress is how accessible research is at W&L,” said Nicole Gunawansa. “I never realized that this was going to be a huge aspect of the school.”

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L