April 17, 2013

Part poster session, part film festival, part concert, Amherst Explorations was a medley of scholarship and performance.

The April 5 celebration of student research and creative work filled the Friendly Periodicals Reading Room with a dizzying array of disciplines. While individual departments and classes often conduct poster sessions and the like for students to show off their work, organizers say that this event is a fairly exceptional opportunity for students (particularly first-year students)—and the whole community—to get glimpse at the variety of topics studied on campus.

The event grew out of the glow that organizers felt last year following a successful research symposium held by students in Chemistry 330, with the help of Patricia B. O’Hara, the Amanda and Lisa Cross Professor of Chemistry, and Health Professions Advisor Dr. Richard A. Aronson ’69.

“It was such an awesome event that we thought it would be great to make another happen,” said Sarah Barr, director of academic engagement programs.

A woodwind quintet performs selections from Six Bagatelles by György Ligeti

Barr took the idea for a campus-wide selection of researchers to Missy Roser ’94, head of research and instruction at Frost Library, and they contacted academic department coordinators, and Amherst Explorations took off from there. The Offices of the President and the Dean of the Faculty, Information Technology and the Writing Center joined the Center for Community Engagement and the Library in sponsoring the event, which saw more than 40 students make presentations over five hours.  “I think it's a really cool opportunity … it's fun to see what people are working on,” said Nica Siegel ’14. “There’s such a diversity of different kinds of research. I’m always glad to see opportunities given for humanities research to evolve.”

Siegel was a member of a Mellon Tutorial panel reporting on a research project that looks at film portrayals of capital punishment. “Scenes of Execution: Spectatorship, Political Responsibility and State Killing in American Film” applied the Lacanian film theory (which studies the viewer as a participant) in the context of dramas that show executions.

“A lot of the existing scholarship focuses on narratives of guilt or innocence, but none on the relationship between the viewer and the scene,” she said. Film theorists debate whether the viewer is a participant, but in this case it’s arguable that Americans who view executions play a role in approving the practice.

Alongside Siegel’s poster with stills from The Green Mile, observers could get a glimpse of Wrenford Thaffe ’13’s kinetic sculptures mimicking animal life, made from discarded electronics.

From there, visitors could speak with Zach Bleemer ’13 about aesthetic terms used in the King James Bible and learn from Christopher Gerry ’14 about his study of small molecules, tied to possible advances in antibiotic treatments.

Gerry said his involvement in Amherst Explorations provided an interesting challenge: distilling his chemistry research down to its essentials for a general audience.

“I’m usually talking to other science majors or professors or primary researchers, my thesis advisors,” he said. “Here, most of the questions I've been getting are more big-picture, on how does this relate to something that is not in the really fine details. It helps give me perspective, to take a step back.”

Christopher Gerry ’14 explains his project

Panels included a peek into the little-seen contents of the Library’s Samuel French Collection, extensive theatrical archives dating back to the mid-1800s, which students explored for Assistant Professor of English Christopher Grobe’s Mellon Tutorial “American Performance Culture Circa 1900.” Digging through this obscure archive, Hannah Greenwald ’14 uncovered details about the long-forgotten scandal of Olga Nethersole (1867–1951), who was charged with criminal indecency for her onstage kissing style. With other material from the archive, Jordan Hugh Sam ’14, looked at the developing depiction of Asians on the American stage: his presentation included the performance of three now-obscure tunes.

Arts and Humanities Librarian Sara L. Smith, who advised the students working in the Samuel French Collection, said this forum was very characteristic of the college, namely for its mingling of disciplines.

“There are no restrictions on people participating,” she said. “There is a dialogue.”