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Five science laboratories and their undergraduate researchers
Eighteen years ago, the University created its Undergraduate Research Fellowships (URF), for students looking to “be active collaborators with world-class faculty in diagnosing and solving real problems,” in the words of provost and dean of faculties David Quigley. The URF budget has since grown from $40,000 to $650,000. And the focus has not been limited to the sciences: In 2015, spring and fall, 264 student fellows have been involved in faculty research projects in 20 departments, ranging from economics to theater to physics. Nonetheless, reflecting the 38 percent increase in natural science majors in the past decade, 40 percent of URF fellows can be found in the University’s 57 science laboratories.
Several factors have propelled expansion of the program. One has been a “sea change in the caliber of science students,” according to biology professor Thomas Chiles, who joined the faculty 23 years ago and now serves as the University’s vice provost for research and academic planning. First-year classes, he says, are increasingly full of “what we call gunners: brilliant, passionate, with very clear ideas of what they want to investigate.” Another factor Chiles notes is an “absolutely critical” need these days for students to conduct lab research if they plan to enter top-tier graduate and professional programs. (More than 90 percent of past URF students in the sciences have gone on to post-graduate training, he says.)
The undergraduate fellows are nominated by their faculty (with more than 95 percent of those put forward receiving at least a partial award). They earn an hourly wage for working up to 20-hour weeks during the academic year and 40-hour weeks during the summer and semester breaks; travel funding is provided so that they may present their findings at conferences.
Most fellows in the sciences join faculty projects that are funded by the University and by public and private agencies, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation. But the URF, says Chiles, also provides funding for students to “enter the front lines of not-yet-funded, high-risk, high-impact” research and conduct experiments with faculty that will form the basis of major grant requests down the road.
All of the University’s science laboratories (in biology, chemistry, earth and environmental sciences, physics, and psychology) make a practice of employing URF fellows. BCM‘s photography editor, Gary Wayne Gilbert, visited five labs and their mostly URF undergraduate teams in October for these portraits.
Associate professor of physics Kenneth Burch’s Laboratory for Assembly and Spectroscopy of Emergence produces nano-scale materials and tests them for new behaviors and possible applications in technologies promoting clean energy and quantum computing (among other uses). The undergraduates in the lab are responsible for extracting and fabricating these materials—the silvery black compound MoS2, say, which is a potential component in next-generation computer chips—within a glove box filled with neutral argon gas. They use adhesives to peel ultrathin layers from bulk crystals of various materials (which “takes great patience,” says Burch) and combine these in the onsite construction of devices including light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and artificial photosynthesizers. Burch and his six graduate researchers teach the undergraduates how to test the devices with infrared spectrometers and atomic-force microscopes, and how to write code to analyze the resulting data. Undergraduates in the lab earn coauthor bylines on Burch’s research papers, which appear in publications including Nature Communications and Applied Physics Letters. Senior Erin Sutton is the first author on the lab’s latest paper, “Towards the Intrinsic Limit in an Exfoliated MoS2.” The National Science Foundation funds the Burch Laboratory’s projects.
To fulfill their undergraduate requirements, environmental geoscience majors can either write a thesis or take a two-semester senior research seminar (taught by a different faculty member each year). In 2015–16, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences Gail Kineke, a coastal oceanographer, has engaged her seminar students in field research for a four-year, $1.8 million National Science Foundation project, “Frontogenesis and Fine-Sediment Trapping in a Highly Stratified Estuary.” The study, a collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), aims to describe the effects of the mixing of fresh and salt water on the movement of sediment in estuaries, and to understand how the processes driven by tides and by river discharge either trap sediment and associated contaminants within the estuary or export these to coastal waters. In late September, Kineke and her 11 students carried out investigations over six days aboard the WHOI research vessel Tioga, studying the Connecticut River estuary. They worked 12 to 14 hours a day to collect sediment and water samples along the estuary and to measure suspended sediment concentrations using acoustic and optical technology. They also recorded tide flow rates, temperature, salinity, and other variables. The students have begun to analyze the September data in Kineke’s lab, and will present their findings at the annual meeting of the Northeastern chapter of the Geological Society of America, to be held in Albany in March.
Assistant professor of biology Laura Anne Lowery investigates the cellular mechanisms that guide development of the nervous system. She assigns small teams of undergraduates responsibility for discrete pieces of her research. For example, as part of a three-year, $747,000 National Institutes of Health grant, she and her research team are unraveling the characteristics of a recently discovered protein that binds to the plus-end of microtubules (a component of cells’ cytoplasm that not only helps cells keep their shape but also, in nerve cells, “plays a key role” in configuring neural connections, according to Lowery). Using the large neurons found in brains of the African clawed frog, Xenopus laevis (“fantastic” for culturing, Lowery says), students inject the gene that encodes the protein into the frog cells—after tagging the gene with a fluorescent marker that allows the protein to be seen with spinning disk confocal microscopy. Their goal is to determine where exactly the protein binds to microtubules and how it interacts with other proteins in the cell. Another team tests whether changing the levels of this protein leads to alterations in microtubule dynamics, while a third team blocks the protein’s function in a separate specimen and examines the overall effects on neuronal development. Each Friday afternoon, the students meet and report their findings (“there are many opportunities to teach resilience,” says Lowery) to the entire lab, which also includes three graduate students and two technicians.
With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, associate professor of chemistry Dunwei Wang’s Nanomaterials for Energy Conversion Laboratory focuses on developing and improving technologies through use of low-cost materials that can harvest and store renewable energy. Undergraduate researchers tend to focus on one technology and become progressively involved in “every aspect of our research,” says Wang. Ian Madden ’16, for instance, has helped the lab develop high-capacity lithium-oxygen batteries over the past three years. “Ian’s task is to understand what limits the performance of existing batteries and try to improve them by altering the surfaces of the electrode materials,” says Wang. Madden has coauthored three papers and is the lead author of a fourth—a report on an electrochemical analysis of porous carbon nanomaterials—which is under journal review. Erik Liu ’17 and Xizi Zhang ’18 work on the Wang lab’s water-splitting research, attempting to make simple compounds such as rust (Fe2O3) into electrodes that can harvest solar energy; the idea is to use this renewable energy to split H20 molecules and yield hydrogen as a clean source of power (e.g., for fueling cars). In the classroom, says Wang, “every chemical equation looks so beautiful, you learn them and then forget.” In the lab, he says, students immerse themselves in “all the footnotes, and experience how the knowledge is generated.”
“The learning mechanisms in the brain help us survive,” says Gorica Petrovich, an associate professor of psychology, “but they can be hijacked by our environment.” Funded by the National Institutes of Health, Petrovich and her research team in the Neurobiology of Feeding Behavior Laboratory study how eating disorders are acquired at the neural level. Rats are conditioned with Pavlovian cues (for instance, a tone or a mild shock) to either eat when not hungry or avoid eating even when hungry. Then their brain tissue is examined to determine the regions and neurotransmitters that have been engaged. Undergraduate researchers train the animals and record the rats’ behavior. The more experienced students then dissect the brains and stain slices of the tissue with antibodies tagged with fluorescent dyes, which allow students to see connections between individual neurons and view their activity in high-resolution microscopic images. Eventually, the undergraduates conduct experiments independently. For his senior thesis, Andrew Stone is investigating the importance of the dorsal striatum—a forebrain structure critical to forming habits based on rewards and punishments. To consider its function in learning the food cues, he is studying rats whose neurons in the dorsal striatum have been compromised.
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