SabriAnan Micha '19 (foreground) and Anna Makar-Limanov '20 (center) explain their science projects.

After a summer spent doing research at Amherst, 45 teams of students celebrated a harvest of sorts, in the form of a standing-room-only poster session at Merrill Science Center.

The student presenters were on hand to answer questions at the Sept. 8 event, which capped more than two months of work on campus, largely through the Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellows program (SURF).

SURF participants immerse themselves in hands-on, collaborative science research, working closely with faculty mentors to design and execute projects. SURF began in 1989, and this year participation  boomed, says Program Director John-Paul Baird, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, in part because increased alumni donations allowed for an expansion. In recent years SURF has averaged about 70 applicants. That number doubled for the 2017 session. In addition to alumni support, Baird attributes that increase to staff and faculty involvement.  This year, he adds, student input resulted in greater emphasis on mentoring, greater involvement from young alumni and an increased focus on helping students develop oral presentation skills. 

At this year’s event, SURF students presented projects in astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics, neuroscience, physics and psychology. Visitors came from all over campus and were invited to cast votes for best posters. The winners are:

  • Best Overall: “The Dangerous Trend of Elbow Injuries in Youth Baseball Athletes,” by Kyle  K. Obana ’18E
  • Best Visual Design: “Hickory Dickory Dock: The Mouse's Circadian Clock,” by Ariella  C. Goldberg ’19, John Michael ’19, Grace Montoya ’20 and Sabrina Solow ’19
  • Best Oral Presentation: “Exploring how protamine folds DNA in sperm,” by Yuxing “Emily” Ma ’20
  • Most Promising Research: “Temperature, Clutch Initiation Date, and Reproductive Success in Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor),” by Nicole  A. Frontero ’20

 Frontero, a psychology major, tracked breeding swallows in Amherst’s bird sanctuary. “I’ve never been much of animal person,” she says. “I thought I was going to be in a lab this summer, but sure enough I found myself going out with ticks and bugs and everything.”. Her research showed a connection between temperature and how early in the season birds nest and lay eggs, she says, attributable to the proliferation of the insects that make up the birds’ food.

“I was very daunted as to whether or not I would be able to hold the birds, to deal with being in with birds and animals and all that,” she says. But by summer’s end she was even handling snakes. “This summer was really good not only from a research standpoint, but from a personal standpoint, of learning how to overcome fears and be more comfortable in the natural world.”

This was the second SURF summer for Clare Leonard ’20, whose project, “Bringing Protoplanets Into View,” involved analyzing images of small stars to see young planets in their orbits.

“Being a little girl they tell you, ‘You don’t like physics.’ I took physics in high school and ended up loving it,” she says. Now she’s focused on astrophysics: “You are looking at planets outside of our solar system, which is incredible, and I get to do a lot of programming, which I love.”