An aerial view of people visiting a poster session in the Science Center.

You surf the waves, you surf the internet and, on Sept. 2, you could SURF the Science Center. The acronym stands for Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellowships, and that day the building was filled with students describing, yes, what they did last summer. On several floors, you could wander about and peer at posters summing up their intriguing research on everything from galaxies to empathy to molecular bonds to fidgety fish. Here are a handful of students talking about what they learned. Surf away…

“Blue Carbon in the Florida Mangroves”

Ethan Ruderman '25 holds a poster of his summer research Blue Carbon in the Florida Mangroves.

Pictured: Ethan Ruderman ’25

“Working on campus, over the summer, something that would involve plants.” That’s what Ethan Ruderman ’25, an environmental studies major, asked for when he spoke to Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Anna Martini last spring. She said yes to plants, but pointed him off campus. Well off: some 1,500 miles to Florida’s Biscayne Bay, where he joined a study that focused on “blue carbon,” that is, the carbon captured by marine ecosystems. He worked in the lab and plunged right in the water, too, pulling core samples from mangroves. Mangrove communities have declined by 20 percent to 35 percent since 1980, though restoration efforts are helping build them back up. “We wanted to quantify the differences between restored and natural mangrove communities,” explains Ruderman. They used the “loss-on-ignition” method, in which you measure the before-and-after-burning weights of dried samples of mangrove sediment, to compare the levels of carbon that remain. The takeaway? Nothing to feel blue about: the restored communities retained as much as the original ones.

“Beyond the Blue Line: Officers’ Empathy and Moral Courage Predict Willingness to Intervene, Burnout and Psychological Well-Being.”

Annika Paylor '24 (Far-left), Susana Feldman '23 (Second left), Nicole Barbaro '24 (right), and Glory Okoli '24 (far-right).

Pictured: Annika Paylor ’24, Susana Feldman ’23, Nicole Barbaro ’24, Glory Okoli ’24  

ABLE is a national advocacy group—it stands for Active Bystandership for Law Enforcement—that offers scenario-based training for police officers about how they might intervene when their peers are acting in questionable ways on the job. The organization is mentioned in the book Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels, by psychology professor Catherine Sanderson, and through ABLE, her students had Zoom conversations with 31 police officers, during which they discussed empathy, burnout and accessing moral courage. Susana Feldman ’23 recalls: “We asked them questions like ‘Do you ever see instances in which you need to stand up or intervene? What’s stopping you from intervening? Are there consequences? Are you afraid of losing your job?” 

 “Development of Augmented Reality Technology for Medical Education in Eastern Africa”

Phyliss Oduor '23 holds a poster about her research on Augmented Reality Technology for medical education in Eastern Africa.

Pictured: Phyllis Oduor ’23

“I’m very passionate about topics like public health and especially how resources are distributed—because I’m from Kenya and I see the disparity in healthcare there,” says Phyllis Oduor ’23. Under the auspices of the Stanford University School of Medicine, she remotely interviewed health care practitioners at Kenya’s Masinde Muliro University and learned that one of their top concerns is the dearth of doctors who can train others. Enter augmented reality. “It’s a new technology that has been used a lot in entertainment, but also surgery, and I wanted to see how it might be applied in medical education,” says Oduor. AR uses the same technology as smartphones, and smartphone usage is growing in Africa, so there was a pragmatic rationale at work here, too. The study compared two groups of paramedics, one that was taught in-person, and another that was taught using augmented reality by an instructor at Stanford. It turned out that the AR-coached group retained the information better than the traditional group, perhaps because the AR headsets cut down on external distractions. The hope, as Oduor put it, “is that students can be trained regardless of their geography.”

“Searching for the Seeds of Life in Interstellar Ices”

Alex DelFranco '24 holds a poster of his summer research on Searching for the Seeds of Life in Interstellar Ices.

Pictured: Alex DelFranco ’24

“Astrochemistry is a brand new field,” says Alex DelFranco ’24. “And it has made huge discoveries in understanding everything from different chemical pathways in space to what kind of molecules can exist in space that could eventually seed life on other planets.” The field pretty much explores these chemical pathways two ways: by observing galactic activity through a telescope and by recreating, here on Earth, the conditions of space. DelFranco did the latter this summer, working with a huge vacuum chamber equipped with lasers and gas tubes at Harvard’s Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. “You have to know what kind of molecules are present on the surfaces of those planets, the ones that could eventually combine to form the amino acids and proteins of life,” he says. Hydrogen, in particular, has been difficult to find, since it has previously been thought to bounce off ice formations in space. But DelFranco and the researchers were able to trap hydrogen at realistic outer space-equivalent cold temperatures, and also begin to show how hydrogen affects the type of molecules in these pre-planet-formation clouds.   

“Synthesis of F9TOPP for Ferroelectric Data Storage”

Charlotte Palmore '24 points to a poster on her summer research on Synthesis of F9TOPP for Ferroelectric Data Storage.

Pictured: Charlotte Palmore ’24

The current method for data storage requires inorganic materials: think of a fleet of metal servers in a huge warehouse, or the minerals mined to create our phones and laptops. There are built-in inefficiencies to the inorganic storage method, though. Inorganic molecules have more powerful interactions with adjacent unit cells, so that a “large team” of them end up co-hosting one bit of data. Organic molecules interact much less readily: a data bit can be stored in one organic molecule, rather than diffused through a team of cells. Follow this logic, and it seems organic materials would make for smarter data storage. Charlotte Palmore ’24 did her study on one such organic molecule, F9TOPP. “It’s made of phosphorus, carbon, oxygen and fluorine, four of the most abundant atoms in the world,” says Palmore. Inorganic data storage requires constant searching for supplies of silicon, cobalt and other mined materials. And F9TOPP had another advantage, too. Rather than one unit being 0 another 1, as in traditional binary coding, this organic material can hold both alternatively. As Palmore explained: “We learned that you can fuse an electric current in an electric field to flip the same molecule from 1 to 0.”

“Formation of an Ultra Diffuse Satellite Galaxy”

Courtney Reed '24 holds a poster on her summer research on Formation of an Ultra Diffuse Satellite Galaxy.

Pictured: Courtney Reed ’24

“I’m a recently declared double major in physics and astronomy, and have always been interested in both fields,” says Courtney Reed ’24. “But, as a person of color, it’s been something that I wasn’t sure if I could really pursue. I didn’t really see people that looked like me in those fields—but I decided to pursue it anyways because it’s something that I really enjoy.” This was Reed’s first summer research project, which took place at the University of Texas at Austin. Her group explored satellite galaxies, which orbit within the halo of a much more massive host galaxy. They explored a simulation of the activity in an analogous galaxy to Antlia 2, a satellite galaxy in the Milky Way discovered by the European Space Agency’s Gaia spacecraft in 2018.  “Sometimes these satellite galaxies are heavily disrupted by tidal interactions within the strong gravitational force of that more massive host,” Reed explains. And indeed, this simulation suggested that “tidal stripping” had occurred, which may represent a possible pathway for the formation of Antlia 2. This semester, Reed will be digging deeper into her analysis — not just through simulation but by actually observing Antlia 2, as well.

“Investigating Zebrafish Startle Probability and Startle Distance Using Optogenetics”

Alyssa Xu '25 holds a poster on her summer research on Zebrafish.

Pictured: Alyssa Xu ’25

“There’s this new toy in the biology department,” says Alyssa Xu ’25. It’s called a Zantiks box, and it helps codify and measure species behavior from fruit flies to worms to, in this case, zebrafish. Using the box, Xu was able to assess how certain mechanical stimuli (such as adding vibrations) and optical stimuli (such as adding light) make zebrafish startle into a C shape. She focused on two proteins involved in the startle effect, Chronos and Channelrhodopsin-2. The distance of the “getaway” time after the startle was consistently shorter in Chronos, yet more variable in Channelrhodopsin-2. “We read some papers over the summer and something that might explain this phenomenon is that, just like humans where you might have a friend who is more jumpy than another, there’s this same sort of pattern in fish.”

“Structural Determination of (E)-1,2,3,3,3-Pentafluoropropene and its Complex with Argon”

Kazuki Tayama '24 holds a poster on his summer research.

Pictured: Kazuki Tayama ’24

Kazuki Tayama ’24, a chemistry major who also loves physics, hands over what looks like a strange Tinkertoy. It’s a model of Pentafluoropropene, represented by four blue spheres (the flourines ), three black (carbon) and one white (hydrogen). What happens when you add a “purple sphere,” representing argon, to the mix? “We put the actual tiny molecule, which you can visualize in this model kit, into an instrument called a spectrometer, which shines a light on the molecule, so you can see it in its natural state. The way it interacts with the light can eventually tell us about the structure of the molecule itself.” And that structure is built on the bonds—short, long, near, far, angled—that connect the molecules. The College owns several spectrometers, which chemistry professors Helen Leung and Mark Marshall brought to the College through grants and then built with the help of Amherst's machine shops. Tayama used the broadband version for his study. Then he compared the data it generated to a second set of data calculated from software called Gaussian 16. What did Tayama find? Among other things, that the electron density of two double-bonded carbon molecules pushed the argon molecule further way. 

“Being Asian American: Racial Assignment Incongruity and its Impact on Health Outcomes”

Eleanor Lee, Fiona Yohannes, and Dorothy Nketia hold a poster describing their summer research project.

Pictured: Fiona Yohannes ’25, Eleanor Lee ’25, Dorothy Nketia ’24

“East Asians are normally the default for people when they think of Asians in general,” says Eleanor Lee ’25. A South Asian person with roots in, say, Pakistan, may identify themselves as Asian, Lee adds. But someone who is white, Black or Latino and living in the United States, for example, may not think of a Pakistani as “being Asian,” even though they would consider a Chinese American to be Asian.

“That’s called ‘racial assignment incongruity,’” says Lee. “We wanted to see how racial assignment incongruity has an impact on the mental health of South Asians when they’re experiencing this kind of dissonance.” The study hasn’t been done yet—Lee and other students are applying for a grant to pursue it in the fall—but they spent the summer reading deeply on the subject. And there was incongruity there, too. “Research on Asian Americans is typically done around the stereotypes of East Asians. And so that’s excluding many communities. We want our research to make people aware that this kind of thing is happening.”