Sun and SURF: Amherst Researchers Stay for Summer

Submitted on Wednesday, 8/13/2014, at 10:43 AM

by Bill Sweet

For an increasing number of Amherst College students, summer isn’t the time to get away; it’s the time to get cracking on their research.

Soon after Commencement and Reunion, students representing numerous disciplines in the sciences and humanities come back to campus to dig deeper.

At a geology lab in the Beneski Earth Sciences Building, Mollie McDowell ’14 has been crushing, grinding, burning and testing soil sediment from Ireland, for a research project with Professor Anna Martini.

“We both wanted to fill in some data gaps that I didn’t have time to fill in during the year,” McDowell said.

About 100 students—undergraduates and recent graduates doing postbaccalaureate research—are staying at Amherst for the summer. They are funded by several programs, including the Summer Science Undergraduate Research Fellows Program (SURF), the Gregory S. Call Student Research Program (SRP), individual academic departments, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Tutorials, among others.

Mollie McDowell ’14 in the lab Mollie McDowell ’14, summertime researcher

New in SURF’s catalogue of grants this year is Amherst’s Clare Boothe Luce Research Fellowship (CBL), which supports first- and second-year women students interested in mathematics, computer science and the physical sciences.

“Women have been well-represented [in the sciences] for many years, but this year we’re seeing an uptick in women in fields where women have traditionally been underrepresented, including math, physics and physical chemistry,” Stoffer said.

Some of the research happening on campus this summer:

  • Joely DeSimone ’15, Tiffany Lee ’16 and Lindsey Bechen ’16 spent the early part of the summer with Ethan Clotfelter, associate professor of biology and neuroscience, monitoring tree swallows’ nests to determine what factors predispose some nests to be heavily infested by blow flies and nest mites, and to see what effects these blood-sucking parasites have on the birds’ immune systems, growth and blood volume.
  • Elizabeth White ’17 is studying mechanical properties of cells in zebra fish embryos for Ashley Carter, assistant professor of physics. White is tracking adhesion, growth, migration, division and protrusion within the embryonic cells.
  • Marissa Fierro ’16 and Maddie Lobrano ’15, research assistants for Carrie Palmquist, assistant professor of psychology, are working in Amherst’s new Child Learning and Development Lab. They seek to determine “whether children pay attention to the value of the information an adult has provided them, or whether they simply make their judgments based on the outcomes of their interactions with a certain adult,” Fierro said. The researchers have been attending story hours, playgroups and other local family events, as well as communicating with families and coding data.

“I think the real pull is that [students] get a chance to work in the labs in a way that they never get to during the school year,” Martini said. “Usually during the year—even when they are working in a professor’s lab— it’s almost always for a very limited amount of time.”

And for students who are undecided about the sciences, summer research helps them clarify their interests and goals before committing to a course of study in the fall, she said.

“When I had the choice to do something really cool and new and exciting, it was definitely easy to stay here [on campus],” said White..

Building Community

A coordinated effort to foster community between scholars continues to gather steam. This year the college’s Writing Center joined the Frost Library and the Academic Technology department in presenting a series of mixers for summer researchers, and the three departments have been hosting workshops on writing, research, graphic design and other essential skills. The CBL program has had social programs to build community among the female scientists. The SURF-related events included an August 6 "lab crawl," where researchers opened up their labs to offer each other a view of their projects.

“In the SURF program, we work about 40 hours a week for a professor and basically do research all day, but then afternoons and weekends are our time,” White said. “We have two social coordinators, people who just graduated, and they host events. We go salsa dancing, we go to the movies, we have a barbecue, we watched the World Cup. So they keep it fun.”

“I love Amherst summers,” said McDowell. “I just get out a lot more than I do during the year. I’m on the Frisbee team, and I have a lot of younger friends who are here, too, so we’ve been playing pickup a lot. It feels very natural.”